BLUE HILL, Maine — A local scientist is part of a federal effort to identify the long-term effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year and to recommend potential remedies.
Dr. Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, recently was named to the Strategic Sciences Working Group, a team of scientists appointed by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to study the situation in the gulf.
The group has been charged with assessing the consequences of the spill and recommending policy actions and interventions to reduce the health, environmental and socioeconomic threats that still exist in the gulf region.
Although Shaw said some of the effects from the spill can never be remedied and the gulf never will fully return to normal, there is an opportunity to take actions that will ease stress on the environment, animals and people in the region.
“This is the first time a group of scientists has been asked to undertake this type of task and to have direct impact on the policy decisions that will be made,” Shaw said. “It is very exciting to work with a group of scientists in many different disciplines and to think we can really make a difference.”
After an initial meeting in May, the group reconvened in New Orleans in September when Shaw joined. In May, she had been diving in the gulf to see firsthand the impacts of the spill and work with independent researchers in the region.
The group’s task, she said Wednesday, is to assess potential threats to the region’s environment, marine species and residents to determine how likely they were to occur and to recommend interventions to reduce their impacts.
Of critical concern, Shaw said, are the effects of “weak” containment activity during the spill and the application of nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants in a deep-water system.
The dispersed oil plumes threaten the 15,000 marine species that live or migrate through the gulf area, Shaw said. The dispersed oil may be more toxic than the original oil spill, she said.
The dispersed oil, Shaw said, is more widely spread out in the water column, making it more likely marine animals will come in contact with it. Because its components are broken down, they can enter a body — fish, mammal or human — more easily and get into the organs more readily.
“When I was diving, I saw the oil droplets in the water,” she said. “The dispersant has broken [the droplets] down into small droplets — bite-sized for smaller species. The dispersant breaks down the lipid membrane in the oil, but it also can break down the lipid membrane of a cell so it can enter the organs more easily.”
The components of the oil and the dispersants are highly toxic and can cause genetic mutations that can lead to cancer, she said.
“There is no safe level for exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic chemicals in oil,” she said. Because of the massive dispersant use, there are huge residual stores of bioavailable oil and hydrocarbons in the system.”
Shaw’s research in the Gulf of Maine has shown how toxic chemicals can accumulate in marine species, working their way up the food chain to larger species including marine mammals.
Another focus for the working group is the impact of the spilled oil on humans, both health and socioeconomic effects. According to Shaw, the oil has sickened residents around the gulf, including fishermen and cleanup crews. The spill also has damaged the fisheries industry, which in many cases is destroying a way of life that has existed for generations.
“It’s a tragedy,” she said.
In addition to the health effects, Shaw said, the group is looking at the emotional mental response to the damage inflicted by the oil spill. Shaw said there are reports of increased cases of depression among gulf residents and an increase in suicides. The working group includes a sociologist who has studied human response to extreme changes and will focus on recommendations to address those issues as well.
“There is some element of urgency to this effort,” she said.
A report from the working group’s September session is being prepared, and no formal recommendations have yet been made to the interior secretary. Shaw was reluctant to discuss any suggested actions in detail before they were forwarded to Secretary Salazar, but said they would include mapping and further study of the spill and restoration of affected fishery habitats.
The report is expected to be completed within several weeks, but the working group will continue to monitor the gulf region and the effects of the spill.
“I’m waiting for my next assignment,” she said.
No date has been set for the next session, but Shaw said it could be later this month. The working group, she said, has been asked to review a report prepared by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus that includes a plan for restoring the economy and environment of the Gulf Coast.