A decade after the BP oil spill: Sick fish, Gulf pollution, and human health problems

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the infamous 2010 BP oil spill. The explosion killed 11 rig workers and spewed 210 millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard; Wikimedia Commons

On March 31, 2010, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited St. Petersburg’s Vinoy hotel to give a speech where he talked about how safe offshore oil drilling was. He was touting his book, Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less.

On that same day, then-President Barack Obama announced he would open a lot of the nation’s coastline to drilling, including two-thirds of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, Florida legislators were considering allowing drilling in state waters just three miles off the coast, figuring that from that distance, the tourists wouldn’t see it, so what could go wrong?

A decade later, this all seems remarkably stupid because within three weeks, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank 5,000 feet beneath the gulf.

Two days later, on Earth Day, the damaged rig began spewing oil that coated coastlines in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and even Florida, ruining tourism, charter fishing and other industries that depend on clean beaches and uncontaminated water.

The BP oil continues polluting the gulf even today, according to recently released findings by scientists from the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Sciences. It’s still affecting fish and other marine species.

Steve Murawski, fisheries biologist at University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science. Credit: USF

“Quite a number of species still haven’t recovered, and there are (still) two major pools of Deepwater Horizon oil in the environment – one in the estuaries, and one in the deep sea,” said Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist with the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.

Meanwhile the disaster’s effects on human health have lingered as well, said Dale Sandler of the National Institutes of Health, who for the past decade has been heading up a study of the effects on 33,000 people who worked to clean up BP’s oil.

“We continue to see reports of symptoms of problems with pulmonary functions – dizziness, nausea – and they don’t seem to go away,” Sandler said. “There is evidence the oil spill … increased the risk of heart disease and heart disease-related heart attacks for up to four to six years after the spill.”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster held the nation spellbound for months as BP’s engineers struggled to halt the flow of oil from the damaged well 150 miles off the Louisiana coast and about 100 miles from Florida.

They set fire to the oil slicks floating on the surface, trying to burn it up before it reached shore. Meanwhile they got permission from the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to spray a dispersant called Corexit in unprecedented quantities, and directly at the wellhead underwater.

Despite those efforts, they were unable to prevent gooey gobs from washing ashore across the gulf states, including tainting the sugar-white sands of eight Panhandle counties. Meanwhile their tactics made the already toxic oil even worse for the gulf.

The burning left a residue of toxic chemicals that drifted down to the gulf bottom as something resembling dirty snow, USF scientists found.

The mix of Corexit and oil was particularly bad for the gulf’s coral reefs, which are still recovering. Meanwhile, a layer of oil remains buried just beneath the surface in the estuaries along the coast, Murawski said.

That mirrors research the USF scientists carried out in Mexico along a coastline affected by another oil spill similar to Deepwater Horizon, the Ixtoc 1 disaster of 1979, he said. Thirty years later, he said, they found pockets of oil the spill left behind.

School of yellowfin tuna. Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program. Wikimedia Commons.

For seven years, USF scientists sailed around the gulf sampling 91 species of fish. They found the chemical residue from oil in yellowfin tuna, red drum and tilefish, primarily in the northern gulf where the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred.

“Hydrocarbons in liver tissues of some species, such as groupers, suggest these fish have experienced long-term exposure to oil,” the scientists wrote in one paper released last week. That’s bad news for their ability to fight off infections and to reproduce, among other things.

After the disaster, Obama appointed a federal commission to investigate what went wrong. The commission’s chief investigator, Sambhav “Sam” Sankar, said the commission’s recommendations called for imposing strong, clear regulations to ensure safety, evaluating the risks of another spill and making sure the oil industry can be held liable in the event of another disaster.

Of those recommendations, “none of them have been implemented,” he said.

The Obama Administration did pass new safety regulations that Sankar said did not go far enough. The Trump Administration recently dropped them. David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council said it’s not right to call that a “rollback” of the regulations.

“We viewed those as modifying and giving us more flexibility to use more modern technology,” said Mica, whose organization lobbies for the oil industry.

Mica, who two years ago contended that publicity about the BP oil spill “was a bigger problem than the actual oil on the beaches,” said that thanks to oil industry safety initiatives, 2020 is “the safest time we’ve had in our history.”

The USF fish-sampling project suggests otherwise.

There are so many routine leaks from the gulf’s rigs and pipelines, Murawski said, that of the thousands of fish that the scientists checked all over the gulf, “not one fish we sampled was completely free of petroleum.”

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in January, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.