BP Disaster Recovery Through the Lens of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The first and second phases of the BP trial involving the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster are behind us. The judge is now deciding how to rule on the issues of gross negligence and amount of oil released into the ocean, while a third and final phase is set for Jan. 2015. Yet, while the end of the courtroom drama is in sight, the genie BP let out of the bottle almost four years ago has not gone away, and questions abound. For example, how is lingering oil affecting the food web? Which impacts will remain hidden? And how long will recovery of the environment take? Answers to these questions are frustratingly elusive, especially since the results of government studies assessing environmental damage are still mostly confidential.
With the fourth anniversary of the BP disaster nearly upon us, we can look back to the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska for insight into the types of impacts seen four years after that oil spill and what they might mean for Gulf recovery. As Alaskans reach a significant milestone today—the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster—the successes and setbacks in coastal Alaska’s recovery are instructive. These insights put the Gulf’s recovery into perspective and tell us that science is the foundation of a decades-long restoration effort, and it must not be shortchanged.
Four years after the tanker Exxon Valdez belched 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, the water’s surface was largely oil-free. However, patches of asphalt-like deposits remained on area beaches and pockets of relatively “fresh” oil could be found below the surface. Residual BP oil persists, embedded in marshes, beaches and offshore sediments. When disturbed, as was the case following Tropical Storm Karen, it re-oils sensitive habitats. Lingering oil poses risks to the species and can slow recovery, either through direct re-exposure or indirectly through ingestion of contaminated prey. To this day, lingering Exxon Valdez oil is monitored on sheltered beaches in the Gulf of Alaska. The Gulf of Mexico needs a similar long-term monitoring effort to track remaining reservoirs of submerged BP oil and its food web impacts.
Finfish Exposure and Recovery
Salmon are the most important finfish, culturally and commercially, to Alaskans. Oil from the Exxon Valdez reached about one-third of pink salmon streams in Prince William Sound. Repeated exposure of fish eggs to relatively less toxic oil slowed the recovery of pink salmon, which was not declared recovered until 1998. Another species, Pacific herring, which once supported a multimillion-dollar fishery in Prince William Sound, was another casualty of Exxon Valdez oil. In 1993, the Prince William Sound herring population crashed, the result of a perfect storm of natural and man-made factors, including Exxon Valdez oil. More than 20 years later, Pacific herring still has not recovered and is the focus of ongoing studies.
In the Gulf of Mexico, fisheries are a $5.7 billion industry. Much is still unknown about the impacts of the BP disaster on finfish or what ripple effects these might have in the ecosystem or fisheries, but new research findings give us a glimpse. Scientists found that when young bluefin tuna were exposed to crude oil from BP’s ruptured wellhead, their hearts were at greater risk of malfunctioning. The BP disaster occurred at the time bluefin were spawning, so it is possible the 2010 class took a hit. Menhaden is also a significant wild card because it is so critical to the Gulf food web. The distribution of this forage fish overlapped with the BP oil spill footprint, but scientists don’t yet know—or aren’t saying—to what degree the species was affected.
Now is the time to model best and worst case oil spill impact scenarios for finfish species of concern, like bluefin or menhaden, using the results to guide recovery strategies and help fishermen plan ahead. Long-term studies for exposed finfish similar to those for Pacific herring in Alaska are also needed.
Wildlife Exposure and Recovery
An estimated 250,000 birds were killed by the Exxon Valdez disaster. Several populations of birds, including bald eagles, had recovered by 1994, but many of those in oiled areas had not. Harbor seals may have declined by as much as 300 individuals following the disaster, continuing a declining trend first observed in 1984. Two pods of killer whales occurring in waters exposed to Exxon Valdez oil lost a combined 22 animals between 1989 and 1994, and neither pod had recovered by 1994. Many of these species have been the focus of oil spill impact studies dating back to 1989, with surveys continuing today because populations have not fully recovered.
In the Gulf of Mexico, thousands of birds representing about 100 species were recovered from the BP disaster impact area. In actuality, the total number is likely many times higher because carcasses are eaten, sink or drift away. Since the disaster, hundreds of sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins have stranded. The dolphin die-off is the longest and worst ever seen in the Gulf. We need to get to the bottom of dolphin deaths to not only arrest the trend if we can and aid their recovery, but also to determine whether conditions for dolphins in the Gulf are changing and why. Scientists need to collect data over many years in order to detect trends and understand ecological relationships. For this reason, long-term health assessments for wildlife species impacted by the BP disaster are high priorities for restoration and gauging recovery.
Recovery Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
The Exxon Valdez experience taught us that recovery from oil spills can be two steps forward and one step back. Oil spill restoration is like a marathon; the process is long and pacing matters. The best way to prepare for the long haul and make periodic course corrections is to learn as much about oil spill impacts and ecosystem drivers as solid science will tell us, and respond accordingly. Tracking the health of an ever-changing Gulf is as important for restoration as regular checkups are for people, even more so for those recovering from an illness. Without a finger on the Gulf’s pulse and understanding how changes in this body of water affect recovering species, the right diagnosis or decisions about this or that species cannot be made. We need dedicated Gulf-wide monitoring for a minimum of 25 years to track recovery from the BP disaster. If there is one lesson we have learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster, it is that good science is the glove that fits around the hand of restoration.
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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