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.