| Jeff Phillips, Environmental Contaminants Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rescues a Brown Pelican from the Barataria Bay in Grand Isle, La., June 4, 2010. State and federal wildlife services pulled approximately 60 oil-covered Brown Pelicans in two days from the Barataria Bay area. (FWS Photo)Wildlife biologist Doug Inkley is haunted by memories of the thousands of dead jellyfish he saw floating in thick black oil-tainted water during his recent trip to the Gulf of Mexico.|
But the senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation(NWF) is just as frightened about the images no one has yet seen from BPs catastrophic oil spill, which is spewing thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf each day.
Hes worried about the damage the oil -- and the dispersants used to break it down -- are doing to the fragile marine life below the surface.
That is a rich marine community filled with deep water coral reefs, squid, fish, mussels, crabs, and shrimp, said Inkley, who spent a week in Venice, Louisiana, surveying the region. The vast majority of the impact is on those marine species that are out of sight. But they should not be out of mind.
Oil is toxic and it affects marine life, he added. It gets in the gills of fish and causes breathing difficulties. And it no doubt is having an impact on plankton. One needs to be concerned about the marine ecosystem and the food chain effects from this.
Compounding this environmental nightmare, he said, are the more than one million gallons of dispersants BP has released into the fertile fishing water.
BP, with the permission of our government, is adding dispersants to the oil at a subsea depth of 5,000 feet, Inkley said. That is causing the oil to break up and be more widely dispersed. There are not as many oil slicks forming on the surface, which means potentially less damage to the birds. But youre trading one type of damage for another type of damage.
Those dispersants contain chemicals. And chemicals can kill fish and wildlife. If they dont kill them, they can impair their ability to reproduce.
A coalition of more than 250 environmental and public health officials echoed many of Inkleys concerns. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition has urged Congress to add provisions that ensure the safety of these dispersants in a bill pending on Capitol Hill to overhaul the countrys antiquated law that governs toxic chemicals.
Under the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the government doesnt require companies that make dispersants to disclose the chemicals in their products. The law also doesnt mandate companies to sufficiently test products to ensure their safety, the coalition said.
'Rolling the dice'
We are rolling the dice with the health of workers and marine life in the Gulf by using dispersants that we know very little about, said Andy Igrejas, the coalitions director.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires two short-term tests of acute toxicity on fish and shrimp for dispersants to be used in any quantities, he and coalition members said. There is also limited short-term data on the individual ingredients used in the dispersants and virtually no data on toxicity to surface- or bottom-dwelling organisms, land animals and plants, or birds.
The limited testing that was conducted (on the dispersants) indicates they are neither the least toxic nor the most effective among available alternatives, the coalition wrote in a statement released a few days ago. In addition, under current law the dispersant ingredients are allowed to remain secret despite their use in unprecedented quantities, and in ways never anticipated by regulators.
As a result of these failures, the health of the workers in the Gulf and the ocean itself may face added threats on top of those posed by the leaking oil.
A doctor who recently visited the Gulf confirmed the fishermen hired by BP to help with the clean-up effort are scared about the health risk they may face from exposure to the dispersants and the oil.
Theyre talking about their health symptoms and their concerns about the oil spill and the dispersants, said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Theyre smelling odors. Theyre feeling sick and they have particular concerns about the dispersants because there are so many unknowns about them.
I wish I could reassure them that its okay, but without more data on the environmental and health effects of these chemicals, its tough to make science-based determinations of safety.
The company initially declined to release the chemicals in the 1.1 million gallons of Corexit dispersants used in the Gulf because of proprietary reasons, coalition members said.
Some information was provided about them (last week), but theres not enough information on effects of those chemical because the law didnt require them to be fully tested, Solomon said.
The fishermen also delayed seeking medical treatment because they were afraid BP would fire them if they voiced any concerns, said a chemist and community activist who has helped workers in the Gulf.
We were having fishermen going out dealing with the oil and the dispersants and they were having severe health impacts, said Wilma Subra of New Iberia, Louisiana. But most of the chemicals (in the dispersants) were proprietary and we didnt have a good idea on the components and the potential health impact. Many of the fishers were also scared to speak out when they had health impacts because they were led to believe that BP would fire them.
Their wives spoke up for them.
And they received the message that if you dont be quiet, BP will fire you, Subra said. In late May, when the workers were brought in to the hospital. Thats when the proprietary issue came up.
The medical staff didnt know what they were exposed to because they didnt have a list of the chemicals in the dispersants, she added. EPA released what chemicals are in the dispersants (last week), but before that, the people who went for medical assistance were not able to get treatment because the doctors didnt know the chemicals they were exposed to.
This problem illustrates why its critical for companies to disclose the toxins in their products, Subra and other members of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition said.
This (spill) has impacted a large number of fishing communities, Subra said. And this information is desperately needed immediately. Not a month after an event occurs.
But the toll the apocalyptic spill -- the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history -- is having on humans is only part of this tragic story, scientists say. Marine and wildlife in the region will be impacted by the oil and toxic dispersants for years maybe even decades.
Biologist Richard Murphy with the Jean-Michel Cousteaus Ocean Futures Society, who has recently gone on dives in the oil-laden Gulf waters, said marine life is especially at risk.
When I see the birds and the horrible images that are now coming out from the Gulf on whats happening at the surface, I think wait a minute, whats happening below the surface? said Murphy, Ph.D., the societys director of Science and Education. We ought to pay attention to those chemicals and the impact theyre having on our marine environment.
Whats happening below the surface may be far more important than the images were seeing at the surface. To illustrate his point, Murphy compared Mother Earth and her waters to a woman and her unborn child. If you think of about a human embryo in an aquatic medium, the place has to be absolutely clean and pristine environment, he said. Now think about the ocean. That is the womb of the planet for these green organisms that are now spawning and reproducing.
And now that womb is polluted with oil and toxic chemicals.
The ripple effects from all this contamination will likely spread to our entire food chain, Murphy said, And those implications are staggering.
Its beyond scary, he said. All organisms make up our food chain and the food we harvest is being exposed to an incredible number of different chemicals.
NWFs biologist Inkley shares those fears.
During his recent trip to Louisiana, he spent time on the water and in the air to get a firsthand look at the damage from the oil that has poured into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20. One image struck a chilling chord with him.
Im sitting on the Gulf, 50 miles from the spill site, and there is half-inch thick layer of sticky black and brown oil, like it just came out of the ground, with thousands of dead jelly fish, he recalled. The smell was overwhelming and I just dont know how any living creature could survive swimming in it. But what I saw is just the tip of the iceberg. The impact from all this will last for years, if not decades.
There are other pictures the scientist can't forget too.
Theyre photographic evidence of the pain and suffering this crisis has already inflicted on wildlife in the area,
Theyre the pictures of helpless pelicans mired in oil.
Thats horrifying, Inkley said. It shows how helpless all life is in that area and how vulnerable it is to this spill. Right now is nesting season for brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, and a host of other birds. Knowing that it only takes a drop or two of oil to kill a developing chick in an egg, I could not help but feel a great sense of loss as I watched birds return to their nests after diving for food in the oily waters of the Gulf.
Asked to assess BPs response to this environmental crisis, Inkley called it inappropriate.
The effort I saw was severely lacking given that I saw one skimmer operating in four days, he told us. There are not enough skimmers or boom to protect the wetlands. And we (the NWF) dont believe that BP should be left in charge of accessing the damage. They have a vested interest in minimizing the damage.
The media and the public should also be allowed to see the extent of the damage from this disastrous spill, which has oozed oil into the Gulf for more than 55 days. Reporters have not been allowed to take pictures in certain areas and people have been pushed off beaches, Inkley said. Something is wrong.
I believe BP has been totally inappropriate in its actions responding to this spill. Theyve withheld information. They claim theyre transparent, but their transparency has an opaque screen.
In the midst of this environmental tragedy, however, Inkley said there are many heroic deeds underway by the volunteers helping the sick and injured wildlife in the region.
When you have an animal come in that is covered with oil, there is much more involved than simply cleaning it, he said. The people working in the area have specialized training in handling and treating wildlife. They wash them off and attend to their other needs, like fixing any broken bones. Its a complicated process with dedicated people.
This is important work, especially with the endangered populations, he added. Thats the case with all five types of sea turtles in that area. All are threatened or endangered. And some of these sea turtles dont mature until they are a couple of decades old. If we lose the adults and take them out of the population it will have an effect for yearsif not decades.
But where do you release the animals once theyre clean and healthy?
Their nests and breeding grounds are now tainted with oil and toxic chemicals.
If this (spill) keeps spreading, I dont know where youre going to re-release them, Inkley said. Birds have a strong tendency to return to that (nesting) area. Sea turtles have a tendency to go back to their same nesting beach. So even if we get an animal rehabilitated, it may get into trouble again. That is why its so important to get this oil spill stopped and stopped now.
Inkley also said its important to start work now on long-term restoration plans for the Gulf.
And we need to look at a clean energy future and end our dependency on carbon-based fuels, he said. Youve never heard of a wind turbine exploding. There are huge costs associated with our dependency on oil and gas, and environmental disasters are no longer a hidden cost.
The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition said revamping the TSCA reform bill -- with provisions that address the safety of dispersants --- will also help protect the environment, wildlife, and marine life.
The coalition said those provisions should include:
• Limiting Trade Secrets: Under the current law, dispersant manufacturers routinely claim the chemicals and product ingredients are confidential business information. The coalition wants the new law to give the EPA authority to force companies to disclose the chemicals in the dispersants and their concentrations -- when the publics interest exceeds private interests. Inkley supports this provision. If theyre dumping these dispersants into our nations waters we have the right to know whats in them.
• Testing Long-term Effects: Only a few short-term aquatic toxicity tests of dispersants are now required and individual ingredients are rarely subject to any mandated testing, the coalition said. The new law must require testing sufficient to identify long- as well as short-term effects on the marine environment, wildlife, workers, and local residents, the coalition said;
• Proof of Safety: The EPA is currently not required to assess the safety of dispersants or their ingredients. The coalition said the new law must place the burden of proof on the dispersant makers to demonstrate the safety of their products;
• Sufficient Regulatory Authority: The EPA must now prove unreasonable risk in order to restrict or control the use of dispersant ingredients. The coalition wants the new laws to give the EPA authority to disallow use of any dispersant that fails to meet safety requirements, and to immediately halt or alter dispersant use where on-the-ground conditions warrant. Meanwhile, Inkley said he will continue to monitor the damage in the Gulf and plans to head back to the region soon.
How to help
What about those who cant travel to the region now, but still want to help the animals and people impacted by this spill?
They can assist with the recovery and clean-up effort, Inkley said, by:
• Making a donation to the National Wildlife Federation. Consumers can donate online or by texting the word Wildlife to 20222 to contribute $10. Some school classes are holding bake sales and rising money for us that we will put to good use, Inkley said. We have established a special fund for Gulf Coast Restoration.
• Volunteer with the organizations Gulf Coast Surveillance team. But dont go down on your own, Inkley said.Go down when its necessary.
• Contact your elected officials. Call up Congress and tell them we need a clean energy future, Inkley said. "It will save future animals from horrific consequences.
Inkley said hes not sure when BP will stop the leak.
And every day the oil continues to gush into the Gulf and the toxic dispersants continue to be used solidify his fears that the wildlife, marine life and people in the region will be impacted for years to come.
I hope you can call me in five years and say: Dr. Inkley, you were wrong. The Gulf is fine. I would love to be wrong. But I dont think I am. I think we will be seeing an impaired ecosystem with wildlife populations below their levels for years, maybe even decades. And it will be a long time before the people recover their livelihoods.
Scientists See Food Chain Dangers in Oil, Dispersants...