By Judith Lewis Mernit
May 22, 2015
On Wednesday, May 20, the day after a Santa Barbara County fire inspector discovered a stream of contaminated crude oil flowing onto a pristine segment of the Southern California coast, a group of researchers published a study linking the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to a mass die-off of bottlenose dolphins. The 46 carcasses examined for the study had suffered from “rare, life-threatening and chronic adrenal gland and lung diseases.” The researchers concluded that these diseases were “consistent with exposure to petroleum compounds as seen in other mammals.”
46 years after the first oil spill that wrecked the Santa Barbara coast, not much has changed
Hearing this, the casual observer might say duh, and wonder why such a study makes the news at this late date, a full five years after British Petroleum’s oil rig exploded and sank, gushing oil for 87 days into Barataria Bay. And indeed, the study is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last, because there’s just no underestimating the persistence of scientific denial in the oil industry when science threatens to force responsibility upon its corporate leaders for environmental disasters. Among the defenses BP mounted against past studies is that Barataria Bay’s dolphins were already suffering from pesticides and other toxic chemicals, so there’s no way to tell for sure whether it was oil or something else that had sickened them.
The new study, as a consequence, has meticulously ruled out every other cause.
The Santa Barbara oil spill, on the shores of Refugio State Beach, has so far released only a small fraction of the Deepwater Horizon’s 206 million gallons of oil, and this time from a pipeline onshore, not a rig situated nearly a mile beneath the sea. But it has blighted an ecosystem of global importance, at the very top of the Southern California Bight, the fecund expanse of California coast that begins at Point Conception and extends into Baja California. It’s in the channel between the mainland and a chain of islands 20 miles out that dolphins assemble in schools of hundreds and migrating whales collect their krill. The coast is home to shorebirds and waders that thrive on its abundant fish. It’s also beautiful.
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