Four years after BP disaster, erosion quickens along Gulf

Bird habitat also lost as plants die

The boats that pulled up to a shoreline in Bay Jimmy on Thursday morning were still in water, but the GPS showed them traveling over dry land.

Not too long ago, that land actually existed, but the shoreline erosion in this area, heavily oiled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, has made the land smaller. Although some erosion would have happened anyway, environmental groups say the oil hastened the process.

After the oil spill, marsh grass along this same stretch of marsh looked burned, and as that marsh grass died, the land under it eroded, said Alisha Renfro, staff scientist at the National Wildlife Federation Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign.

April 20 will mark four years since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and resulting in the largest oil spill in American history.

Since then, scientists have been looking into the short-term and long-term effects the spill had on fish, other wildlife and coastal ecosystems.

Although much of that research has been tied up in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and is being kept confidential for the time being, some research has been released that shows potential effects consistent with what has been seen after other oil spills, said David Muth, director of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program of the National Wildlife Federation.

Within the past six months, studies were released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others that show the oil from the Deepwater Horizon likely affected marine life on a cellular level, likely caused the illnesses found in dolphins studied in Barataria Bay in 2011, and was linked to heart deformities in embryos of bluefin tuna studied in a lab.

BP representatives stated after each of these studies was released that the research doesn’t reflect what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico and is not conclusive about the cause and effect due to oil exposure.

For example, in the study about heart defects in bluefin tuna embryos exposed to oil, BP spokesman Jason Ryan wrote: “The paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico.”

However, representatives of the National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund and Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana said Thursday that there does appear to be evidence toward possible long-term effects and they want BP held accountable for the damage.

“They just haven’t stepped up and taken responsibility and done what’s right,” Renfro said. “In order for us to move on from this, we need restoration. Large restoration.”

Farther out into Barataria Bay are two islands known as Cat Island. Just a few years ago, these islands hosted large colonies of nesting brown pelicans and other birds, but the islands have since shrunk to shadows of their former size.

One island still hosts a population of birds even though it’s much reduced in size, but there’s no sign of life on the other island.

Even last year, this second island had hosted some brown pelicans and other birds, but on Thursday the only bird to be found was dead of unknown causes. The silence and the dead stumps of mangroves was a vast difference from the island even three years ago.

Renfro said mangroves, which were helping hold the island together, are sensitive to oil and when those mangroves died, the pace of the island’s erosion quickened.

“My guess is any (bird) that tries to nest on this island this year will get overwashed,” said Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation in the Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway program of the National Audubon Society.

So what are the long-term effects the state can expect? That’s still to be seen.

“Under the Oil Pollution Act, there’s a very deliberate way to evaluate natural resources damage,” said Kyle Graham, executive director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

This Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is how state and federal representatives known as trustees build a case through science on the type and extent of damage. That information is then used in a legal process where trustees compile a single claim for monetary damages, Graham said.

The studies and evaluations that need to be done to tease out those effects from other factors take many years of study, he said.

“We feel very comfortable with the breadth of the studies we’re doing,” Graham said.

Since NRDA is a legal process, not a scientific process, the results of many of those studies haven’t been released. Instead, those studies will be used as a basis to determine the damage claim that state and federal representatives will ask for. Also, the studies could be used later in court, if necessary.

“BP has made it very clear to us they’re only going to pay the very least the court orders them to pay,” Graham said.

Ryan, of BP, said the company’s position is that it will comply with requirements of the Oil Pollution Act, which means restoring natural resources injured as a result of the accident.

Graham said the entire process “is going to take time and I know that’s frustrating for people.”