We already knew 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was the biggest oil spill in history. When the BP rig exploded, it released 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. Eleven workers died. So did thousands of marine animals. By all counts, it was horrible.
Well, it turns out it was even worse than we thought.
A new report, published in Science Advances on Wednesday, shows that the spill extended far past the footprint that satellites showed with oil even getting swept up along the Gulf Stream toward the East Florida shelf.
By observing models that mimic oil movement, remote sensors on satellites, and water samples taken during the spill, the researchers found that the spill’s reach was 30 percent larger than previous data showed. Though satellites didn’t pick it up, the new findings show what the researchers call “invisible oil” reached the West Florida shelf, the Florida Keys, and some Texas shores as well as along the Gulf Stream towards the East Florida shelf, exposing far more marine animals to toxic chemicals than previously thought.
“We measured the toxicity in areas the [satellites] didn’t pick up, and... found concentrations that are lethal for fish and invertebrates, concentrations that likely would have killed many,” Igal Berenshtein, the study’s lead author and postdoc at the University of Miami, told Earther. “In some places, we saw levels that could potentially have killed 50 percent of the area’s wildlife population.”
The toxic concentrations of pollution subsided shortly after the spill, but losing that many organisms can have lasting effects on an ecosystem. The study didn’t look at the impacts to human health, but there certainly could have been consequences.
“The main thing we can say in regards to [human health] is that we don’t know,” said Berenshtein.
The oil from the Deepwater spill—and the dispersants used to clean it up—both made people around the Gulf of Mexico sick. Much more research will have to be done to determine what those consequences were for people in areas farther away from the spill.
The study does, however, say the spill must have had indirect impacts to people in those areas because fish that local fisheries depend on were affected. Mahi mahi, blue crab, speckled blue trout, and other commercially important fish were exposed to high concentrations of oil.
Kindra Arnesen, a Gulf Coast commercial fisher, saw how devastating the BP spill was to her livelihood.
“We’re still dealing with the fallout from that,” she told Earther. “As far as fisheries go, all our stocks haven’t recovered as yet... we saw a decline in shrimp, in all sorts of species.” Ten years later, she’s still seeing smaller fish populations. She has also seen mutated fish.
The new findings suggest people’s who livelihoods depend on healthy fish populations could have been affected like Arnesen’s. But Berenshtein said more research will have to be done to see if fish in areas farther away could have gone through similar mutations and just what the exact impacts of the invisible oil were on fish populations. The study authors hope their findings will help assist emergency managers and decision makers in better managing the impacts of future potential oil spills.
“It’s important to account for the entire oil spill, both in terms of spatial extent and in terms of the impact on the ecosystem,” said Berenshtein. “That’s what we need to remember next time there’s a spill.”
Really, the best way to protect people and wildlife from oil spills is to stop drilling for oil in the first place. Scientists have made it clear that that’s what we need to do to protect the planet from furthering climate change anyway.
But if we’re not going to stop drilling for oil, at the very least, the study shows the need to further regulate oil companies to ensure future spills are cleaned up properly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen—the Trump administration is actually planning to relax the regulations that the Obama administration put into place after the BP disaster. And it’s done its best to open waters around the U.S. to drilling despite a somewhat tepid response from industry so far.
“This was one of the largest environmental disasters in our nation’s history, and now it looks like it was even bigger than they said,” Arnesen said. “But Trump is rolling back environmental protections, and the oil industry is expanding at the same time? Have we learned no lesson at all?”