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Eyeless Shrimp and Fish With Tumors: The Horrific Consequences of BP's Spill

Despite mounting environmental and health consequences, not to mention the death of 11 workers, no executives have received jail time.

Almost two full years after the BP oil spill, a panel of experts gathered at the 17th annual Tulane Environmental Law Summit, to present the continuing impacts of the BP Oil Spill. That spill began with the April 20th, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling unit used by BP 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven men lost their lives. The resulting spill of oil into the Gulf of Mexico stands as the largest oil spill in U.S. history and the second largest environmental disaster in this country to date besides the nearly decade-long Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Scientists at the summit presented recent photographs of shrimp with no eyes and fish with cancerous tumors born long after the gulf was declared "safe" for fishing.

It turns out that testing water and fish flesh under the surface oil after the spill was not very telling about long term impacts as oil and water don't mix and the chronic, toxic impacts were delayed until long after BP was put in charge of the "clean up." When BP sprayed chemical dispersants containing a slew of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, the oil didn't magically disappear. It sank into the sediment. Disturbingly, the allowable levels set by the government for the toxins in our seafood are based on health impacts for a 176 pound adult eating less than 2 medium shrimp a day. The testing is for 1 chemical out of a crude oil mixture containing thousands of chemicals. No synergistic effects are considered. This in no way protects children, fetuses, people who weigh less than 176 pounds or anyone who eats seafood on a daily basis like the folks here on the Gulf Coast.

Dr. Andrew Whitehead, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University, who is studying the BP spill and has reviewed much of the scientific studies of the Exxon Valdez spill, explained that stock declines of species may take several years to develop as reproduction is impacted in successive generations and across species. The Exxon Valdez spill is now known to be responsible for the decline of many species, including marine mammals, marine birds, and fishes such as pink salmon and herring. Though we have a take on the immediate acute impacts of the BP spill on animals caught in the oil, the chronic ultimate impacts of the BP spill are still unknown. But we do know that the killifish, the most abundant forage fish for the bigger fish in Gulf coast marshes, are being affected. Fish from oiled marshes show signs of direct toxicity and reproductive impairment. Dr. Whitehead's experiments involving exposures to oiled sediments, done in collaboration with colleague Dr. Fernando Galvez, show that killifish embryos are taking longer to develop or don't hatch at all. They are being born with malformed hearts and hearts that may not function properly when they mature. And as the impacts from the spill on the fish bioaccumulate and propagate across generations, liability is harder to prove without good and strategic scientific study that sadly is harder to fund.

But some impacts are being felt now, especially for sediment dwelling seafood. Current reports from fisherman up and down the coast are startling. The oyster harvest for 2010 was the worst in more than four decades and oystermen continue to report catches down as much as 75 percent. Crab catches are in steep decline. Brown shrimp production is down two-thirds. And the white shrimp season was even worse, leading to descriptions of "worst in memory" and "nonexistent." This from the region that before the spill provided 40% of the nation's seafood.

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