Burning the oil spill evidence

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2010:

NEW ORLEANS–Rumors flew for weeks that British Petroleum
clean-up crews were secretly incinerating the remains of wildlife
oiled by the April 20, 2010 wreck of the Deepwater Horizon drilling
rig. Often obstructed by BP personnel, despite an order from U.S.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen that media were to be allowed access
to all areas normally open to the public, reporters wondered just
what they were not being allowed to see–especially since many gained
access to heavily oiled habitat despite the BP interference.
But some of the first claims that oiled remains were being
burned on beaches turned out to have been recycled from the aftermath
of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. A similar rumor traced to Salt
Lake City, where a 500-barrel spill into Red Butte Creek and the
Jordan River on June 11 oiled about 280 ducks and geese. About 10
birds were killed. The Hogle Zoo saved the rest.

Catherine Craig of CNN at last found partial confirmation of
the burning rumors on June 13, interviewing shrimper Mike Ellis,
who said he had been hired by BP to do sea turtle rescue. Ellis
asserted that the BP approach to collecting and burning floating oil
in the immediate vicinity of the sunken Deepwater Horizon was likely
to be burning oiled sea turtles.
Los Angeles Times reporter Kim Murphy got the details four days later.
“The large strands of sargassum seaweed atop the ocean are
normally noisy with birds and thick with crustaceans, small fish and
sea turtles,” Murphy wrote. “But now there are no birds. The
seaweed is devoid of life except for the occasional juvenile sea
turtle, speckled with oil and clinging to the only habitat it knows.
The burn operations have proved particularly excruciating for the
turtle rescuers, who have been trolling the same lines of oil and
seaweed as the boom boats, hoping to pull turtles out of the
sargassum. In one case, the crew had to fall back and watch as
skimmers gathered up a long line of sargassum that hadn’t yet been
searched, which they believe was full of turtles who might have been
“The same convergences of ocean currents that create long
mats of sargassum,” Murphy continued, “also coalesce the oil,
creating islands of death sometimes 30 miles long. Hardest hit of
all, it appears, are the sea jellies and snails who drift along the
gulf’s surface, some of the most important food sources for sea
Said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
researcher Blair Witherington, “These animals drift into the oil and
it’s like flies on fly paper.”
Earlier, Murphy was heartened when a lone sea turtle came
ashore through oil along the beaches of southern Alabama and laid her
eggs–but then clean-up workers ran over the nest with a vehicle.
Fortunately, Murphy continued, “Volunteers were able to find the
nest, safely dig up the 127 new ping-pong-ball-sized egg, and
rebury them in a safe location. The nest, which is the first to be
laid in the area since the oil spill began, will be fenced off to
protect the eggs until they hatch in about two months.”
Sea turtles are among the hardest-hit species in the
Deepwater Horizon spill region. Oceana marine scientist Elizabeth
Wilson told Houston Chronicle reporter Harvey Rice on June 9 that the
hundreds of sea turtles found dead since the oil spill began “far
exceed the 30 to 50 stranded turtles normally found this time of
year” on Gulf Coast beaches.
But sea turtles are benefiting from the closure of the oil
spill region to fishing and shrimping. Sea Turtle Restoration
Project marine biologist Christopher Pincetich told Osha Gray
Davidson of OnEarth.org in May 2010 that fishers and shrimpers have
killed about 25,000 sea turtles per year in the Gulf during the past
decade–and killed as many as 86,000 sea turtles per year as recently
as 2000, before use of Turtle Excluder Devices on nets was enforced.
Among other marine species afflicted by the spill, “Dolphins
and sharks are showing up in surprisingly shallow water just off the
Florida coast. Mullets, crabs, rays and small fish congregate by the
thousands off an Alabama pier,” observed Associated Press writers
Jay Reeves, John Flesher, and Tamara Lush on June 16–but the
numbers of dead dolphins found in the spill vicinity actually
dropped, following the unexplained deaths of 101 dolphins in the two
months before the Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank. This was the
most dead dolphins found in March and April along the Gulf coast in
seven years, and was nearly seven times the annual average, said
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin-istration spokesperson Monica
Eight studies of bottlenose dolphin behavior after other Gulf
oil spills have found that dolphins may suffer harm from inhaling
fumes from oil spills, and may experience liver damage and
neurological disorders from longterm exposure, but usually do not
consistently avoid oil slicks.
Sharks also seem relatively resistant to the effects of oil
spills, but “At this point, we do not know what the [longterm] impact will be,” Gulf Coast Research Lab scientist Eric Hoffmayer
told Al Jones of the Biloxi Sun Herald. “The adults, of most of the
species we have here,” Hoffmayer said, “likely have been exposed to
some part of the oil. Right now, they are pupping in the
Mississippi Sound, a nursery for sharks. Whatever the mother is
exposed to, the pups have been exposed to as well.”
As the Deepwater Horizon oil plumes drift toward coastal
Florida, oil is entering manatee habitat, and “can have a lot of
harmful effects if manatees come in contact with it,” Save the
Manatee Club executive director Patrick Rose told Rich Phillips of
CNN. “Everything from coating their skin to getting in their eyes,
to being ingested,” Rose continued, but “We don’t know specifically
because it’s not been documented,” he admitted. The Deepwater
Horizon may be the first major oil spill to affect many manatees.
Rescuing manatees who have been injured by collisions with
boats long since became routine in Florida waterways, but “Capturing
and rescuing hundreds of manatees has never been done,” Rose said.
“We would lose manatees, I believe, if those numbers of manatees
are involved.”
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manatee oil response coordinator
Nicole Adimeyr was more optimistic. “If we had to move dozens,
we’ve been assured that we can get the resources,” Adimeyr said.
Oiled mantees would be treated at the Audubon Aquarium of the
Americas in New Orleans, the Institute for Marine Mammals Studies in
Gulfport, Mississippi, and possibly also the Homosassa Springs
State Wildlife Park, Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa and the Miami
Seaquarium, all in Florida.
“The West Indian manatee population in the Gulf of Mexico
stands at about 5,000,” Phillips said. “This past winter’s extended
cold wiped out almost 10%.”

(More BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill coverage appears on pages 8-9.)

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