A new study released this week by researchers at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science suggests that diluted and submerged oil released from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and explosion may have reached beaches from Tampa Bay south to Sanibel. In fact, data models show that the oily remnants may have even entered into Tampa Bay itself through tidal currents.
The study, conducted by USF’s Dr. Robert H. Weisberg among others, considered how the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current and associated eddies interact with oceanographic features such as the West Florida Continental Shelf. The team ran simulations based on historical current data to generate maps indicating where the subsurface oil may have traveled.
While surface oil was not observed south of the Florida Panhandle, as a significant amount degraded naturally or was disbursed through BP’s application of the controversial chemical Corexit, hydrocarbons with the unique chemical signature from BP’s well nonetheless persisted in the water column for some time. These hydrocarbons were swept up in Gulf currents and moved south, parallel to, and at locations intersecting with, Florida’s West Coast.
According to the study, “there is no … reason to believe that [BP] hydrocarbons beneath the surface, and hence not visible, did not find their way to the west coast of Florida.” In fact the authors went further, noting that “the entire inner West Florida Continental Self … as far south as Sanibel Island, FL is bathed in tracer” (referencing the chemical tracer used in Gulf current modelling).
In addition to applying Gulf current data, the conclusions of the USF team are bolstered by numerous reports of fish caught with lesions and other disease symptoms in the same areas where the Gulf current data suggests the oily hydrocarbons traveled.
In conclusion the authors state:
“Given the consistency between the tracer simulation and the in situ evidence for ecological effects, plus the conservative assumptions made on initial concentrations when viewed against the limited supporting data, we conclude that hydrocarbons of Deepwater Horizon origin were likely transported to the West Florida Continental Shelf and may even have entered Tampa Bay and contacted the beachfront between Tampa Bay and Sanibel.”
These finding come at a critical time, as BP is claiming that the Gulf of Mexico has fully recovered and that there is little evidence that any harm was done to the ecosystem outside of the immediate spill area. In fact, the company has been enthusiastic in its recent attempts to renege on its oft-stated “Commitment to the Gulf” as it tries to repudiate its own Settlement Agreement that was meant to compensate the people and businesses of the Gulf for the harm inflicted on our waters.
While nearly four years post-BP Deepwater Horizon there are still daily reports of surface oiling on Northwest Florida beaches, this USF study is the first to indicate that the damage may be much greater in scope and severity than previously believed.
From this data, BP’s contentions must be seriously questioned, as the damage inflicted on the Gulf, its people and economy appears to be growing by the day. The authors note that only now, nearly four years later, are the “human, economic and ecological losses and impacts becoming increasingly documented as research and legal proceedings evolve.”
As a plaintiff attorney, Tom Young has been at the forefront of some of the Nation's worst disasters. In 2015, he was judicially appointed to represent over 200,000 plaintiffs in an allocation proceeding involving a $1.24 billion settlement with Deepwater Horizon contractor Halliburton and rig owner Transocean. Currently, he's focused on representing numerous communities across the country that have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and are now seeking damages from drug manufacturers and distributors.