Animals

Baby Dolphin Deaths Linked to BP Oil Spill

A study blames chronic illnesses in mothers exposed to the oil for the deaths of their young.

An unusually high number of baby dolphins were found dead in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, and a study Tuesday blamed chronic illnesses in mothers exposed to the oil.

The study probing dolphin deaths from 2010-2014 in the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama was published in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Origin.

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Researchers found "substantial differences between fetal and newborn dolphins found stranded inside and outside the areas affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill," the study said.

By comparing 69 young bottlenose dolphins that washed up dead in the spill zone to 26 others found in areas unaffected by the oil, the team found that the young dolphins, which died in the womb or shortly after birth, "were significantly smaller than those that stranded during previous years and in other geographic locations."

A total of 88 percent of baby dolphins found in the spill zone had lung abnormalities, including partially or completely collapsed lungs.

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Just 15 percent of young dolphins found dead in areas unaffected by the spill had this lung abnormality.

Researchers said the findings suggest the dolphins died in the womb or shortly after birth, and their lungs never had a chance to fully develop and inflate.

A dolphin's pregnancy typically lasts 380 days.

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The US government estimated that 4.9 million gallons of oil spilled from the seabed after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon suffered an explosion on April 20, 2010 that killed 11 people.

The spill is widely viewed as one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Some 122 dolphins died from April 30, 2010 until November of that year, during the initial response to the spill.

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What researchers call an "unusual mortality event" among dolphins is still being tracked, with a total of 1,591 cetaceans stranded - 94 percent of them dead - in the northern Gulf of Mexico as of April 3, 2016.

In addition to the baby dolphin deaths, researchers found that the spill-zone dolphins were "particularly susceptible to late-term pregnancy failures, signs of fetal distress and development of in utero infections including brucellosis," a bacterial infection.

"These findings support that pregnant dolphins experienced significant health abnormalities that contributed to increased fetal deaths or deaths of dolphin neonates shortly after birth," said lead author Kathleen Colegrove, a veterinary diagnostic laboratory professor at the University of Illinois.

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Colegrove and colleagues have previously published research that showed spill zone dolphins were more likely than other stranded dolphins to have severe lung and adrenal gland damage "consistent with petroleum product exposure."

The new findings are yet more evidence that exposure to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill hurt the reproductive health of dolphins in the area, said co-author Teri Rowles, a veterinarian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

Dolphins swim in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 BP oil spill.

If we judged the worst oil spills in history only by gallons leaked, the Exxon Valdez disaster -- which occurred 25 years ago today -- would not make the list. However, adding in environmental impacts and clean-up efforts, it's still recognized as one of most damaging spills to date. In 2009, Exxon Mobil Corp. was ordered to pay about $500 million in interest on punitive damages for the oil spill off Alaska, nearly doubling the payout to Alaska Natives, fishermen, business owners and others harmed by the 1989 disaster. Debate continues over what qualifies as an oil "disaster," but here are 10 that would certainly make the list.

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As the largest oil spill disaster in U.S. history, the

Exxon Valdez

incident continues to leave an incredibly damaging black mark. Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker was traveling outside of normal shipping lanes to avoid ice, when it struck the Blight Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Out of the 53 million gallons of crude oil onboard, 11 million gallons were lost in the accident. The size of the spill and its remote location in the pristine Alaskan wilderness made clean-up a horrendous task. Ten million birds, whales, otters and other animals were placed immediately at risk and thousands died.

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On March 18, 1967, the

Torrey Canyon's

entire cargo of 119,000 tons of Kuwait crude oil was lost after the tanker ran aground on Pollard Rock on the Seven Stones Reef off of Lands End, England. The Royal Navy dispatched a clean-up response team within four hours of the grounding. By March 26, the entire vessel had broken apart, putting an end to any hopes of towing the ship off the reef. The British government eventually decided to bomb it.

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In the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 1976, the crew of the aging Liberian oil tanker

Argo Merchant

could not keep control in the rough waves and 50-knot winds during a storm off the coast of Nantucket. The ship ran aground among the Nantucket shoals. On Dec. 16, the crew was evacuated, and by Dec. 22, the ship had broken into three pieces, spilling all of its 7.7 million barrels of oil into the ocean. Constant bad weather made salvage attempts very difficult, but environmentalists said damage to local waters were minimal. Strong currents carried the oil away from the Massachusetts shoreline and forced it out to sea.

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Stormy weather, rough seas and a faulty piece of steering equipment proved to be a fatal combination for the

Amoco Cadiz

on March 16, 1978. The enormous vessel -- carrying almost 2 million barrels of oil -- was sailing from the Arabian Gulf to Le Havre, France when it ran aground on Portsall Rocks, three miles off the coast of Brittany, during a severe storm. The entire cargo spilled into the water, creating an oil slick 18 miles wide and 80 miles long, and it wasn't long before the force of the storm caused the ship to break apart.

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The only thing worse than one oil tanker exploding and sinking while at sea, is two oil tankers colliding at sea. During the rage of a tropical storm in the Caribbean, two giant supertankers, the

Atlantic Empress

and the

Aegean Captain

, each carrying over 200,000 tons of crude oil, collided near the islands of Trinidad and Tobago on July 19, 1979. The impact caused enormous, violent fires to break out over both ships. Between the two ships, 26 crew members died and 280,000 tons of crude oil were spilled into the Caribbean. Fortunately, the spills never reach shorelines.

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In the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico, 600 miles south of Texas, the company Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) was drilling a 2-mile-deep oil well called IXTOC I. On June 3, 1979, a loss of drilling mud circulation forced a blowout, causing oil and gas to spew out of the well and ignite. The platform holding the drilling equipment and collecting the oil immediately caught fire and collapsed into the water. Several rescue crews worked for days to try to reach the Blowout Preventer (BOP) -- a large valve used to seal off the surface of a wellhead -- but poor visibility, debris and a long pipeline made it difficult. The IXTOC I well continued to spill oil at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day until it was finally capped on March 23, 1980 -- nine months after the initial incident. By the time it was capped, over 140 million gallons of oil had seeped into the bay, making it the second worst oil spill disaster in history.

Kuwait oil spills during the Gulf War remain the worst examples of eco-terrorism and are by far the worst oil disasters in history. Beginning in January 1991 during the Gulf War, the Iraqi Army deliberately spilled millions of barrels of oil in the Persian Gulf. Over 500 Kuwaiti tankers, oil fields and refineries were torched, and 3 to 6 million barrels of oil went up in smoke on a daily basis at the peak of the burnings. One 6-million-barrel spill covered over 600 square miles of water and the oil traveled as far as 20 miles away out into the Indian Ocean. The environmental and health risks were enormous, with over 90 million barrels of oil lost. Environmental experts deemed the incident 25 times more toxic than the Exxon Valdez.

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On April 11, 1991, while unloading crude oil onto a floating platform seven miles off the coast of Genoa, Italy, the MT

Haven

exploded, burned for three days and then sank, spilling over 42 million gallons of oil in its wake into the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian and French coastlines were polluted for 12 years after the accident.

When the huge oil tanker

Prestige

wrecked about 130 miles of the coast of Galicia, Spain during a storm on Nov. 19, 2002. The ship broke apart and sank to the bottom as it spilled over 1.5 to 2 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean. Three massive "black tides" soiled 125 miles of Spanish coastline within two weeks after the accident. Considered to be twice as big as the

Exxon Valdez

accident, the Prestige accident remains the worst oil spill in Spain's history.

An oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, caused an offshore oil drilling platform to explode and sink, killing 11 men onboard. Government scientists declared the Deepwater Horizon spill the largest in U.S. history -- with twice as much oil spilled than in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

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