GREENBELT, Md. (CN) — The Trump administration’s failure to consider the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in a recent assessment of the harm offshore drilling could do to endangered species triggered a lawsuit from a slew of conservationists Wednesday.
The Sierra Club and others allege in the 40-page complaint filed in Maryland federal court that the National Marine Fisheries Service arbitrarily omitted key information about the explosion – which dumped over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago – in its most recent evaluation for Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas programs in the Gulf.
A 2007 biological opinion issued by the fisheries service said that oil and gas speculating, development or production in the region would not “jeopardize any listed species or adversely modify critical habitat.”
“Notably, NMFS predicted that oil spills from such activities would cause little harm,” Earthjustice attorney Susan Stevens Miller wrote in Wednesday’s complaint. “NMFS and [the] Interior [Department] believed the largest spill possible would be at most 15,000 barrels, but that such a large spill was extremely unlikely.”
That report, the complaint states, “proved gravely wrong.”
A faulty well on the Deepwater Horizon rig blew out abruptly in 2010 and uprooted underwater cement casing, resulting in a massive explosion that killed 11 crew members instantly and sent over 100 people to the hospital.
Oil erupted in thick rust colored clouds underwater for 87 days, coating the surrounding shorelines with the toxic substance that clung to all it touched as it killed birds, fish and other wildlife – including some endangered species – in the process.
A study published in April by the conservation group Oceana, which is not a plaintiff in Wednesday’s lawsuit, estimated that in the five years following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, over 75% of pregnancies in the region’s dolphin population failed. The Bryde’s whale, an endangered species, also saw a huge hit to its population following the spill: its numbers shrunk by 22% overall.
“The spill contaminated over 43,000 square miles of surface waters and over 1,300 miles of shoreline. Recent research indicates that toxic concentrations of invisible oil spread through the water column across an even larger area, extending past the Florida Keys and along the Atlantic Coast of Florida,” the complaint notes. “Scientists estimate the spill killed or seriously harmed billions, if not trillions, of animals, including over 100,000 individuals of species listed as threatened or endangered.”
That damage could be seen from space, but environmentalists claim the NMFS “irrationally excluded” the massive oil spill from its assessment for prospective drilling published in March because it considered the probability of an extremely large spill happening again to be too low.
The Sierra Club and its co-plaintiffs – including Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and the Turtle Island Restoration Network – demand a new biological opinion that actually factors in the Deepwater Horizon spill within six months. They claim the NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedure Act by omitting that analysis.
This time, the groups want the NMFS to update its methodology to examine not just visible oil spills on the surface but also “far beyond what the naked eye can observe from one vantage point.”
“Research shows that subsurface and invisible oil can be equally toxic as visible surface oil to ESA-listed species, their prey, and their habitats,” the complaint states.
Beyond the potential for new spills, the groups claim the NMFS also failed to fully consider the impact of climate change. Increased hurricane activity, for example, ups the likelihood of severe damage to oil and gas facilities.
A representative for the Interior Department did not immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday.
“This administration is convinced that if they ignore something, it will go away,” Earthjustice attorney Chris Eaton said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s not working for the climate crisis and it’s not going to work for oil spills. Ten years after Deepwater Horizon, the Gulf is still healing, and protecting its biodiversity and communities should be paramount. It’s ridiculous that we need to go back to federal court to force the federal government to even acknowledge that basic fact in its analysis.”
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