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Spring 2011

Deepwater Disaster. Toxicologists confront questions with Gulf oil spill

by John Davis

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – One Year Later

Watch Video on YouTube

Ron Kendall, Director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech, discusses the research scientists are doing to better understand how the oil and oil dispersant mixture affect wildlife.


Crude Survival-a journal of Texas Tech University research covering the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Crude Survival

A journal of Texas Tech University research covering the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Read blog entries, view images and watch videos of TTU researchers.

Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.

Almost a year has passed since that April day when the world watched the oil rig Deepwater Horizon burn and sink into the Gulf of Mexico.

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.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

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

After an immediate response from Texas Tech researchers who are currently studying the oil spill’s impact, more questions than answers remain, said Ron Kendall, director of The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech University.

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 an area in order to reclaim damages from an offending party. 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 neither side wants the other to know what it has. The really valuable thing would be a sharing of science as we continue to learn about impacts, but because of NRDA, it’s going to be very difficult to get data out so 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 it comes to the official numbers on animal impact, those numbers are probably low-ball, 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. 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 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 the 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 or 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 have endangered species out there telling us there are problems, and we’ve got to watch it,” he said.

The Paste at Port and Starboard

Something wasn’t right with the sea.

Waves smoothed out. The wind seemed not to affect the water in the same way. You could even feel it in the way “Riptide,” the hired fishing boat, reacted as it crossed into this new phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico.

It became an eerie telltale sign to the three Texas Tech University researchers that they’d entered an oil slick. On a clear June 4 morning about 20 miles from Mobile Bay, Ala., Phil Smith, Ernest Smith and Mike Wages from TIEHH went to collect the last of their oil samples for testing. The sun shone brightly as a southwesterly breeze blew.

Forty-five days after the Macondo blowout, oil continued to ooze at a rate somewhere between 53,000 and 62,000 barrels a day into the Gulf. After soaking southern Louisiana’s marshlands, the oil slick turned to Alabama.

This was the first trip by Texas Tech into the growing disaster area.

It also marked the beginning of an amazing tale of research into the oil spill. Rather than wait for an invitation, about 20 researchers at TIEHH have dedicated themselves to understanding the science of the oil spill from an ecotoxicological standpoint.

Their work not only has garnered national and international media attention and invitations to testify before the Senate and a special task force organized by President Obama, but it also opened the doors to myriad questions about how the disaster will ultimately play out.

“This whole scenario may play out over months to years to a decade,” Kendall said. “We just don’t know yet. It’s very complex. Not only has this spill been described as the largest spill in U.S. history and the greatest environmental disaster, I would say it’s about the most complex ecotoxicological event that I have dealt with in my career.”

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