On April 20, 2010, the Gulf of Mexico and the lives and livelihoods of those dependent on it changed after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sent oil gushing from the sea floor for 87 days. Efforts are still being made to understand how the 3.1 million barrels of oil and 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant (used to break the oil into smaller droplets) have and will affect life in the Gulf of Mexico – both aquatic and human – and the ecosystem itself. At a congressional briefing sponsored by retiring Representative Sam Farr (CA-20), experts came together to discuss the state of understanding of the effects of the spill and direction for the future.
Dr. Bernard Goldstein (Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health; Gulf Regional Health Outreach Program Coordinating Committee) and Dr. Teri Rowles (Coordinator, Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) spoke of the impacts to human and marine mammal health. Dr. Goldstein stated that more research is needed to determine the effects of petroleum components in seafood; current data are inadequate to confidently advise the public on health risks associated with the contaminants. Through a number of marine mammal health assessments since 2011, Dr. Rowles found that 18 of 21 species of dolphin and whale had significant, quantifiable health problems when compared to those in areas not impacted by oil. These include moderate to severe lung disease and adrenal injuries (indicative of impaired stress response). She also found increased mortality rates and a decrease in reproduction, including a large number of aborted calves in 2011 that were in-utero at the time of the spill. For the most part, these impacts have not been limited to immediately after the spill – as of 2015, marine mammals were still showing increased signs of lung disease and reproductive failure.
Mr. Justin Ehrenwerth (Executive Director, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council) stressed the importance of the bipartisan Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act of 2012, which brought approximately $16 billion to the Gulf coast for restoration purposes. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, created by the RESTORE Act, is a federal entity consisting of five states and six federal agencies focused on restoring habitats and water quality, replenishing and protecting living coastal and marine resources, and building community resilience. The Council’s work has been collaborative in nature, centering on a view of the Gulf as a whole, “without regard to geographic location” (i.e., geopolitical boundaries) to restore the entire system.
Mr. Ryan Underwood (Legislative Counsel, U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)) reviewed federal reforms since the spill, which is the reason BSEE exists. These include rules to reestablish or revamp safety and environmental management systems, drilling safety, production safety, and Arctic-specific drilling requirements. He also spoke of upcoming requirements for safety and environmental management systems and improvements stemming from equipment failure reporting and lifecycle reliability data.
While significant research has been done to determine the effects of the 2010 spill and regulations have been implemented to improve safety and avoid future spills, there is more to be done to recover this valuable ecosystem.