Dolphin Health 'Grave' After BP Oil Spill

Dolphins in the area of BP’s 2010 oil spill suffered from extreme health problems, with many not expected to survive, a study conducted a year after the spill shows. Nearly half of the 32 dolphins examined from Louisiana’s Barataria Bay … Continue reading →

Dolphins in the area of BP's 2010 oil spill suffered from extreme health problems, with many not expected to survive, a study conducted a year after the spill shows.

Nearly half of the 32 dolphins examined from Louisiana's Barataria Bay in 2011 were found to be in "guarded or worse" condition, according to the study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Seventeen percent were listed as "grave" and "not expected to survive."

The Deepwater Horizon spill dumped up to four million barrels of oil (according to government estimates) in the Gulf of Mexico's Barataria Bay. The study was conducted in August 2011 as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) by a team of government, academic and non-governmental researchers.

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The condition of the Louisiana dolphins was assessed by veterinarians and compared with the health of dolphins from Sarasota Bay, Fla. who were tested as a control group. Fourteen of the 29 Louisiana dolphins examined in 2011 were in guarded, poor or grave condition. That compared to one out of 15 examined from Sarasota Bay.

Among the afflictions found in the Louisiana dolphins were severe lung disease and deficient levels of adrenal stress-response hormones. A quarter of the Louisiana dolphins were also underweight. The researchers said that many disease conditions seen in the Barataria Bay dolphins are rare but consistent with oil exposure and toxicity.

The research is among the strongest evidence yet to link the oil spill to sick dolphins.

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"I've never seen such a high prevalence of very sick animals - and with unusual conditions such as the adrenal hormone abnormalities," lead author Dr. Lori Schwacke, a chief with NOAA Centers for Coastal and Ocean Sciences, said in a NOAA press release.

BP financed the study but is disputing its finding. A BP spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that NOAA "still hasn't provided BP with any data demonstrating that the alleged poor health of any dolphins was caused by oil exposure."

NOAA researchers acknowledge in the study that dolphin deaths had been occurring in the region since February 2010 -- with at least 1,050 marine animal strandings documented before the spill. Schwacke and the others wrote they "cannot dismiss the possibility that other pre-existing environmental stressors made this population particularly vulnerable to effects from the oil spill."

The researchers looked at alternative explanations for the Louisiana dolphins' conditions, including exposure to other man-made chemicals that have been measured in high concentrations in marine mammals.

But blubber samples from the Barataria Bay dolphins showed relatively low concentrations for these common culprits as compared with other coastal dolphin populations. In fact, levels of these chemicals were lower than in the sampled Sarasota Bay dolphins.

Photo: Dolphins swimming in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 BP oil spill. Credit: NOAA

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


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


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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