Scientists and environmentalists across the United States and around the globe have their fingers crossed that BP’s claim to have finally capped its runaway well, after three months, is true, and that the damage of history’s worst environmental disaster can now be assessed in finite terms.

Yet, it will take years, if not decades, to truly comprehend the extent of the devastation: the dead and damaged wildlife, the soiled beaches and marshes, and the huge swaths of the sea that may become dead zones, so polluted that fish and other animals can't survive there.

Even as BP was announcing its alleged capping success, many more wounded animals were being spotted and oil was still splashing on shorelines across the Gulf. Just recently, oil surged into one of the largest sea-bird nesting areas along Louisiana’s coast near Raccoon Island.

Three hundred to four hundred more pelicans were spotted with oil, as well as hundreds of terns. Scientists say these visible blotches of oil mean death for the sea birds.

To date, it’s estimated that over 3,000 birds have been killed, 59 dolphins, at least one sperm whale, and more than 460 turtles. Indeed, perhaps the species most threatened by the tens of millions of gallons of oil and toxic dispersants is the giant prehistoric sea turtle.

Dr Christopher A. Pincetich, a marine biologist and toxicologist for the Turtle Island Restoration Network, is convinced that the BP oil spill has destroyed a “generation” of turtles.

“We’re working as fast as we can on several fronts,” Dr. Pincetich said in an interview from New Orleans. “Most urgent right now is the immediate rescue of more of the endangered sea turtles that are in the Gulf oil spill right now.”

Flawed Operations

Pincetich, who is working with various government agencies as well as independently, said the Unified Command’s efforts in the Gulf are “far from meeting the needs of these endangered sea turtles. …

“We know there are hundreds of thousands of them in the Gulf. They’ve rescued almost 150 in over 80 days. They have one task force dedicated to it. And I really highly respect all the professionals involved, but the overall response needs to drastically increase the wild life rescue as a whole.”

Pincetich said transferring thousands of hatchling Logger Heads Sea Turtle to nests on the Atlantic coast of Florida “will save thousands of hatchlings,” but the plight of the endangered Kemp’s Ridley Turtle is a different story, because of its limited range of mobility and relative small breeding area.

He said the official policy of releasing captive Kemp’s Ridley turtles back into the Gulf “is business as usual,” but not a good idea. 

“A lot of the agency models that you’ll see on Web sites, official reports are based on old information,” Pincetich said. “Hurricane Alex has completely shifted the situation. Now, as this oil spill spreads and grows …we have started a campaign to modify that practice and get them out of business as usual.

“So that those endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are raised in captivity or placed somewhere safe within the Gulf. Unlike the other seven species of sea turtles in the world, this one has a pretty limited range. So we are really, really worried about the Kemps.”

Pincetich, who lives on the coast of Northern California, has specialized in overseeing biological and habitat monitoring projects for threatened and endangered species. He believes the BP oil spill is having a devastating impact on sea life in general and on the turtles specifically.

“From a toxicologist standpoint, you look at an exposure to a toxic chemical from the point of the absorption of the chemical, distribution within the body, metabolism, elimination of that chemical,” he said. “So with sea turtles obviously they are in the ocean, they are exposed to the oil spill. The adults are going to be ingesting just about anything they can find to eat. 

“And a lot of everything in the ocean is coated with oil and dispersants, and a mixer of the two. The physiology of the sea turtle is that it can spend sometimes hours under water on a single breath. When that sea turtle comes up for air it takes a very deep breath. Oil slicks displace oxygen on the surface, the vapor they’re actually heavier than oxygen. The exposure through inhalation of the sea turtle to the chemicals is going to be huge.”

Pincetich said he was alarmed to discover a large number of dead crabs in the Mississippi Delta, a clear sign that the entire food chain that supports the turtles and other sea life may be in jeopardy.

“We know from satellite tracking that the Kemps really use the Mississippi canyon area and the Mississippi Delta as a primary foraging ground,” he said. “In fact, I was out there and I saw dead crabs.  These are the same crabs that [the turtles] should be eating. It’s going to impact them first of all on an entire ecosystem level. If they need food, this food may not be available. So the turtles are really getting hit from a lot angles.”

A Toxic Soup

Even worse, said Pincetich, BP’s oil spill coincided with the height of the breeding season and the turtles will be forced to breed in the contaminated sand.

“The months of May, June and July are the primary nesting period, so each and every sea turtle is going to have to crawl up an oily beach,” he said. “That’s all the sea turtles nesting in the Florida panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi. …That’s going to be a real threat to any developing sea turtle embryos. The nests are within the sand.”

And it gets even worse when you add in the toxins from the various dispersants used widely by BP to break up the oil spill, Pincetich said, calling the mix a “toxic soup” that has a negative synergy that scientists still don’t understand.

“The use of dispersants in this incident is on a scale and in a way that we have never experienced before on this planet,” he said. “They are applying dispersants directly to the oil gushing out of the well, at depths and pressures that these chemicals have never been tested. And it’s affecting all marine life.” 

Besides the various breeds of turtles, said Pincetich, deep-sea tuna are in danger.

“We have endangered species, Blue Fin tuna, Big Eye tuna, from the Atlantic Ocean, that spawn in the Gulf of Mexico right now. This is a really dwindling population and there’s really not much hope for the small marine life in the Gulf that are now experiencing this toxic soup of mixed oil and dispersants throughout the Gulf.”

Pincetich said that when he flew over the contaminated waters, “we saw an entire ocean that was the wrong color. ...  And this is an area where our country has fished for almost a third if not more of the sea food that ends up on  all our dinner plates. … and we’re subjecting it to a mix of chemicals that we know are toxic but know very little about, on this scale.”

Dangerous Burns

Pincetich was a part of an effort to restrain BP and the federal government from burning up turtles in their haste to get rid of thousands of gallons of surface oil. That attempt created ten-mile-by-ten-mile “burn boxes”  where the oil was set ablaze on the sea surface.

“We know for sure that sea turtles were caught in these booms that corralled the oil into the areas that will be burned.  And we need to know if they do encounter a sea turtle that they are taking action to rescue it, relocate it and rehabilitate it,” he said. 

Turtle Island Restoration Network took legal action against the U.S. Coast Guard and BP and both entered into an immediate settlement with the group. BP agreed to have an independent wildlife observer on the boat team with equipment to rescue sea turtles, and file reports, but Pincetich said thing are moving so swiftly that it is very difficult to find out what is really going on.

“At this time I haven’t heard back from our law team if those reports have been filed with us yet,” said Pincetich. “But the burns are continuing and they have been restarted throughout the Gulf. They’ve done over 300 burns to date. And they like to do a bunch at once, every day. …

“And, honestly, the fire on the water is not something that our marine life has evolved to deal with. It’s very likely that a sea turtle could just come on up for air in an area wondering why the surface of the water looks the way it does and be scorched. 

“So, we have not received confirmation from the observer teams on what’s really going on.  We continue to fear for the lives of all the sea turtles in the Gulf with those operations.”

Dead Zones

Dr. Pincetich is working with people from around the world — scientists, environmentalists, oceanographers and deep sea divers — though many are so troubled by the catastrophe that their attitudes border on hopelessness.

“I was actually able to spend some time with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau and The Ocean Future Society,” said Pincetich, “and they were just shaking their heads. Well, they expressed real concerns for the ocean conservation community about the long term impacts of the dramatic ecosystem change that’s already happened … and for the continued toxicity.”

Pincetich said there may very well be  an expanding “dead zone” where no living organism can survive for years. He said the unique nature of the Gulf where water has a long “residence” lends to these concerns about sustained dead zones.

“Yes, there will be a dead zone,” he said, adding that the only question is the size. “There will be a dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River this summer, I’m sure. … Whether or not this really does impact the entire Gulf for more than a decade is anyone’s guess. …

“The oil has really penetrated to all levels. …  I’m really concerned that it’s reached the sediment. We know that oil will weather, it will emulsify, it will be become less toxic, and then it can sink and reach the sediment in usually a less toxic form.  

“And in this case we really aren’t sure if normal emulsification is occurring on the level that we’re used to, with the Hurricane Alex mixing the top slick in with the dispersants and creating this blue-gray ocean. …

“It is just heart breaking to know that we don’t give the ocean the respect it deserves. We drill into it, we spill into it, we use it as our toilet; I tell people that our current fisheries practices are like gathering mushrooms in the forest with a bulldozer.

“And the sea turtles are really an iconic canary in the coal mine. We see that their populations in the Pacific with the endangered Leather Backed Sea Turtles are down 90 percent. They are struggling to survive and this is a species that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs.”

Dennis Bernstein based this report in part on interviews done for "Flashpoints" on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at dbernstein@igc.org.

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