Though six months have passed since news first broke that oil was pouring into the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, a Texas Tech University environmental toxicologist said many lessons have been learned and more research still is needed.
Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech, said that though the media has ceased coverage of the oil spill since the federal government named the well “effectively dead” on Sept. 19, the story of the larger impacts is far from over.
“We’ve learned that we were not prepared for a deep-water release of oil of this magnitude,” he said. “We also learned we weren’t prepared for an oil spill in terms of the technology required to engage it. We know now that we need better booms and more information on the dispersants, as well as development of more ‘green’ dispersants than the ones available.”
Following the April 20 explosion, approximately 200 million gallons of crude would pour into the gulf, creating the largest accidental release of crude in the history of the petroleum industry.
Ecologically, the short-term effects on wildlife seem better than originally projected, he said. Hundreds of miles of beaches were oiled. Thousands of birds and hundreds of endangered or threatened sea turtles have died as a result of the oiling, but the damage could have been worse.
However, the full picture as to the oil’s impact on organisms below the surface may never be counted. Rather, the underwater impacts may become more apparent if populations dwindle because larval young were killed and aren’t there to reproduce in years to come.
“We are yet to learn what the impact of using dispersants in deep water is, because much of the oil is in the sub-surface or on the bottom,” he said. “The long-term effects may take years if not a decade to reveal. For example, the impact of this year’s age-class of endangered sea turtles may only become evident a decade from now when mature female turtles will wind up on the Texas beaches to lay their eggs. Another example would be with sperm whales. Damage done from this year’s calf recruitment may not be evident for years to come because it’s very hard to monitor them in deep water.”
Though NOAA and Texas Tech studies have not found oil residues in seafood samples, the industry continues to suffer from bad perceptions, he said. Also, some seafood could have long-term effects where popular species have population declines.
“The Gulf of Mexico is one of major spawning grounds in the world for bluefin tuna. We also know that larvae from blue fin tuna eggs are much more sensitive to toxic components of oil. This species could move to threatened or endangered status if there’s a population drop in the near future. We will have to monitor this closely, but the long-term impacts on sentinel species are ominous.”
Kendall continued to call for more independent academic research into the environmental effects of the oil spill.