Texas Tech Ecotoxicologist Calls for More Independent Research a Year After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

More questions than answers remain as to the impact of the Macondo blowout.

Almost a year has passed since Deepwater Horizon burned and sank into the Gulf of Mexico, and a Texas Tech University ecotoxicologist is calling for more independent research.

More questions than answers remain as to the impact of the Macondo blowout, said Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech.

Lots of science is going on at the federal level for the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), a tool used by the federal government to assess damage of a public trust resource in order to determine the extent of injury done to it and develop the methods for restoring that resource.

However, no one is releasing that information.

“A lot of what’s being learned currently is being held out of the public eye because of the legal aspects of the NRDA,” he said. “Until that lawsuit’s settled, a lot of data generated on the impact will not be revealed, because each side doesn’t want the other side to know what it has. The really valuable thing would be a sharing of science as we continue to learn about impacts. Because of NRDA, it’s going to be very difficult to get data out so that we can more fully evaluate the context of what happened. The sad part of it is that it’s going to take years of legal wrangling and a trial before all this data can be shared.”

When workers finally capped the well in September, more than 4.9 million barrels of oil (about 205.8 million gallons) belched out into the Gulf, floating in mats on the waves, suspending in the water column, sinking to the bottom and oiling more than 600 miles of shoreline.

That’s about 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The official numbers on animal impact are probably a fraction of the actual account, he said. Not all bodies can be reclaimed from the sea. A recent report from Conservation Letters estimates the impact on just the marine mammals might be 50 times more than what was found because of problems finding the animals in the open ocean.

For endangered and threatened sea turtles, such as Kemp’s ridley and loggerheads, the impact will probably take years to discover. Last year’s batch of hatchlings, he said, probably headed for waters polluted with the oil. It will take 10 years for the mature females to come back ashore and lay their eggs before scientists can count probable survivors.

Little is understood about the dispersants used in the oil spill and how it may still be impacting the environment, Kendall said. Researchers are finding that a lot of oil sank to the bottom. Questions remain as to how the volatile, toxic components of that oil react at a depth where ultra-violet light can’t reach to break it down. And while much of it currently lies deep in the water, Kendall said it might not stay there.

“Already the National Hurricane Center is predicting a very active season with up to 16 storms,” he said. “That does not bode well for the Gulf of Mexico. We do know that large hurricanes have ability to bring what’s on the bottom up to the surface. What will we see with a potentially big hurricane? Last summer, we got off easier than many predicted. Big hurricanes can turn over what’s on the bottom and in deep waters and bring it to the surface or wash it ashore. Who knows what that will do? It could dilute more oil, or it may turn over oil that’s in a less biologically active zone and wash it onto shore where birds and other wildlife will be stressed again.”

One thing is certain, Kendall said. More independent science is needed to fully understand the scope of the disaster. The gulf may be a resilient and productive ecosystem, but already it faces challenges. It has “dead zones” due to fertilizers washing down the Mississippi River. Urban development introduces more pollution, as does increased energy production. The oil spill is one more layer added to the gulf’s challenged condition.

“I believe the Gulf of Mexico is a highly resilient ecosystem, but we’ve got endangered species out there telling us there are problems, and we’ve got to watch it,” he said.

Read the story and view video and photos at http://tiny.cc/ttuoilspill.

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Ron Kendall, director for The Institute of Environmental and Human Health, Texas Tech University, (806) 885-4567 or ron.kendall@ttu.edu.