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Expert Faults BP Analysis on Oil Spill’s Impact

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The Deepwater Horizon oil spill had a greater environmental impact than BP says, a scientist testifying for the United States said last week in the ongoing penalty trial stemming from the disaster.

Dr. Donald Boesch, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier that the oil harmed the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Everywhere the oil went, it created harm," Boesch testified.

Boesch challenged BP's claims the environmental impact of the spill wasn't as bad as expected by saying the whole impact may still be unknown. He pointed to the collapse of the red herring population in Alaska years after the Exxon Valdez disaster as an example of "the kinds of things that might happen down the road after a disturbance like this."

There is still concern, Boesch said, "that the spill - or the response -- is responsible for the depletion and reduction of oyster populations."

Judge Barbier said he heard there is evidence that fish living at or near the water surface suffered "sub-lethal consequences" of the spill.

Yes, Boesch said. He said there is a higher incidence of skin lesions in fish associated with the bottom sediments in areas affected by the oil spill, and elevated levels of petroleum hydrocarbons have been found in the livers of the fish.

"This indicates the fish are somehow being stressed or contending with this, but ... that's why it's 'potential'; it doesn't rise to the level of evidence that the fish actually died or the population suffered at this point in time," Boesch said.

"Chronic harm" would be a good way to describe these fish, he said. Because "even though the effects might not initially be lethal, they're chronic. They create chronic effects which could at some point in time affect the survival of the individual and affect the population."

Boesch said there are numerous ongoing studies into the effects of the oil spill, but "most of the evidence ... data resulting from the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, is not publically available, and almost none of the interpretations of that are available" for public review.

Boesch said a few times during his testimony that scientists working for BP diminish the affects of the spill by looking at the Gulf of Mexico as a whole, rather than focusing on the areas that were heavily oiled.

Early on in Boesch's testimony, Judge Barbier acknowledged that it did seem like scientists for the United States and BP were each looking at totally different figures. "I think part of the issue in this case is the government and BP seem to be like ships passing in the night," Barbier said. "They're operating on different planes or different planets, and I am not deciding now who is right or who is wrong about that."

In all, Boesch said 380 miles of shoreline was heavily or moderately oiled. "That's 78 percent more than the amount of moderate to heavy oiling of any previous oil spill in this country, or in most places in the world I would think," Boesch said.

Over 57 miles of seabed was affected, he said.


"Marine snow" captured oil from the deep water plume that developed after the incident and sent it to the sea floor, Boesch said. "If you have a lot of biological production by bacteria, the dead bacteria cells, the mucus, and so on that are produced, create almost like a snow in the ocean and that settles more rapidly."

The marine snow can affect the organisms on the sea floor in a number of ways. For instance, "it could smother them," he said. "But also it exposes those organisms to high concentrations of toxic hydrocarbons, which are in the residue."

Boesch said the microorganisms that live on the ocean bottom are important because they regulate the processes by which the organic matter is degraded and nutrients are recycled into the water.

Not only could marine snow possibly smother those organisms, but "it depletes the oxygen in the top sediments which in turn, shuts off decomposition," Boesch said. This would allow oil contaminants to persist longer in the bottom where they would not be subject to dissolution from the constant mixture with ocean water or to degradation by microbial processes because there wouldn't be oxygen left for those processes to occur.

"These animals are important because they're the base of the food chain for bottom feeding fish -- shrimp for example -- that might live there," Boesch said. "We don't know a lot about this population ... generally in deepwater environments growth rates are slow ... [so we don't know] how long this thing will last."

Boesch said he has concluded deepwater corals have been harmed by the spill.

"The impact on cold water corals wasn't addressed at all in the round one expert reports from BP," he said.

"Cold water corals have been getting a lot of attention in recent years in marine conservation, and that's because they live in areas where fishing activities have now began to extend," he continued.

"Because of their unique biota and rare occurrence, only in these little outcroppings in the Gulf, the Department of the Interior ... has requirements that limit oil and gas drilling activities anywhere near these coral outcroppings. So we already have a system to try to protect them from the effects of oil and gas drilling in the gulf," Boesch said.

Boesch said scientists for BP say the harm to corals is insignificant because only a few corals were harmed.

All week last week witnesses for the United States gave testimony about the effects of the oil spill on the environment, and on the livelihood of people and businesses along the Gulf of Mexico.

Testimony for the United States concluded Friday with Ian Ratner, a partner at Glass Ratner Advisory & Capital Group in Atlanta who told the judge that BP's financial "position today is better than it was prior to the oil spill" and that the company is more than able to pay $13.7 million, which would be the maximum fine it faces for violations under the Clean Water Act.

This is the third trial before Judge Barbier over damages caused by the April 20, 2010 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig 50 miles offshore from Louisiana.

Eleven workers were killed in the explosion, which caused oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 57 days.

Judge Barbier ruled earlier this month that an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil sullied the Gulf of Mexico during the spill. In a previous ruling, Barbier said BP had acted with "gross negligence" in events leading up to the spill, which paves the way for BP to face up to the maximum fine for barrels of oil lost into the Gulf of Mexico, which is $4,300 per barrel, or $13.7 billion dollars.

Testimony for BP begins today (Monday) with witnesses who are expected to counter claims made last week by Boesch and Ratner and other experts who testified for the United States. Trial is slated to continue two more weeks.

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