One of the frustrations of covering the Deepwater Horizon spill back in 2010 was the fact that biologists couldn’t immediately assess the extent of the ecological damage and it was hard for them to venture a guess. After all, no one had ever spilled that much oil offshore. And the oil was not spilled over the surface but injected deep underwater.
Those studying the communities at the bottom of the Gulf said it would take years to assess the true extent of the damage.
And now here we are. Years have gone by, and thankfully at least a few reporters are still interested enough to keep following the story. Some long-awaited results were released this week in the journal PNAS.
The new results detailed damage to corals that anchor communities of organisms on the sea floor. Scientists had already determined that corals near the site of the spill were dying. In the new paper, researchers report that oil has sickened and killed coral communities miles away, the coral skeletons in some cases being taken over by other creatures.
Many headlines leaned on the old newspaper staple that the situation was worse or bigger “than thought”. It’s rarely clear who those thinkers are – random people? scientists? spokespeople for BP? In the months following the spill, there were optimists and pessimists, as well as scientists who held back until they knew more.
What’s becoming clearer is that the pessimists were right.
Newsweek carried a summary of the paper by Louise Stewart: Footprint of Deepwater Horizon Spill Is Bigger Than We Thought
The story mentions ‘oil forensics’ tied damage to BP oil. It would be nice to see an explanation as this concept sounds intriguing.
The International Business Journal went witha similar headine: BP Oil Spill: 2010 Deepwater Horizon Catastrophe Is Much Worse Than Thought, by Philip Ross
At Salon, Lindsay Abrams covered the story, headlined, Researchers: BP oil spill’s impact was “deeper and wider” than thought. Here she does suggest that it’s people working for BP who “thought” it wouldn’t be as bad.
At Newsworks, a site associated with Philadelphia’s public radio station WHYY, Jessica McDonald wrote up the story under the headline: Deepwater Horizon oil spill casts wider net in harming coral
She included a real interview with one of the researchers, Eric Cordes of Temple University. That made the story stand out, since his live quotes were much more alarming than anything in the paper or press release.
“About 50 percent of the colony was covered in this black substance. There was mucus being produced by the coral — that’s their first stress response,” he said. “And then where it was really bad, there was tissue falling off the bone, basically, there was bare skeleton, and literally, tissue melting off of the bone.”
Yikes! So that’s what a sick coral reef looks like. The image stirs concern that goes far beyond any impression left by the other stories.
I started to wonder how the researchers managed to study these corals, since they live 6000 feet below the surface. Most reporters didn’t say.
I got an answer from Alan Boyle at NBCnews.com under the headline, Coral Damage Goes Deeper in Gulf of Mexico’s Oil Spill Zone
The scientists scanned an area within a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius of the leak, using sonar data, towed camera systems and an autonomous Sentry underwater vehicle. Five previously unknown coral communities were identified, and an ultra-heavy-duty Schilling remotely operated vehicle was dispatched to take high-resolution pictures.
The coverage wasn’t extensive, perhaps because some might deem it an old story, but it’s really ongoing story – one that’s not finished playing out. – Faye Flam