ST. PETERSBURG — As the four-year mark of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster approaches, environmental groups, marine scientists and local leaders warn that its impacts — and the spectre of oil drilling off the Pinellas Beaches — may still linger.
The BP oil rig explosion killed 11 workers and sent millions of gallons of oil in to the gulf in 2010 at a time when local tourism was reeling from the recession, making offshore drilling an economic issue as well as an environmental one.
Between the Salvador Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater Thursday morning, a handful of elected officials and environmental advocates urged a continued ban on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and called for more thorough research of the impacts of oil and dispersants in immediate area of the well and beyond.
“Think about what the impact of the 2010 oil spill would have had on us had it occurred just outside Tampa Bay,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who was a state representative at the time of the disaster. “Think about the impact it would have had on businesses along Beach Drive, or on the Dali Museum.”
In one of his first local appearances since he was elected March 11, Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly promised to work at the federal level to help achieve those ends, potentially going against his party’s views on environmental issues.
“This is an easy one,” he said. “Restoring the Gulf should not be a partisan issue. Protecting the Gulf should not be a partisan issue. Insisting that we get restoration right should not be a partisan issue.”
Jolly had been accused of lobbying for offshore drilling interests during his special election battle with Democrat Alex Sink earlier this year, something he denied.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate today the importance of preventing expanded drilling in the eastern gulf,” Jolly said Thursday.
BP estimates it has paid $27 billion for response, clean-up, claims and restoration. This week the company said the final3-mile stretch of its shoreline clean-up effort in Louisiana was complete.
Those in attendance at the Thursday event said havoc is still unfolding.
“As you might imagine, we’re showing signs in all of the levels of marine organisms from marine zooplankton all the way up to the top predators,” said David White, who directs the National Wildlife Federation’s gulf restoration campaign.
That group issued a report last week claiming BP oil is being found in the tissue of a list of species that includes bluefin tuna and whales.
“Recently we found oil in the embryos in the eggs of white pelicans in their breeding grounds in Minnesota,” White said.
“Both (oil from the well) and Corexit, the dispersant that was used to try to sink the oil after it was spilled into the gulf ... We know that this is not over by any means.”
BP defends its restoration efforts, and has been dismissive of reports suggesting ongoing impacts. In a recent statement the oil giant accused NWF of cherry picking the data. The company says studies from other independent organizations suggest a lack of evidence of oil impacts on gulf marine life.
“Despite the numerous signs of progress — from record tourism to a thriving fishing industry and the end of active clean-up operations — some advocacy groups refuse to acknowledge evidence of the region’s recovery,” wrote Geoff Morrell, BP senior vice president of communications and external affairs. “Instead, they cherry pick the findings of scientific reports, or blithely mischaracterize them, to support their agendas.”
BP said it has committed $1 billion toward research efforts conducted as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, and that it’s funding independent research projects in the gulf with $500 million during the next decade.
Bob Weisberg, a physical oceanography professor at the University of South Florida, who ran models of the gulf’s loop current to predict the oil’s path, said Thursday that determining the extent of damage requires coordinated, objective research, which has yet to commence.
“You can’t fix it if you don’t know how it works, and you can’t restore it if you don’t know what it was to begin with,” Weisberg said.
“To figure out how it works and to figure out how to restore it we need observations. We need to know how to restore it, what’s out there. And nobody’s willing to take that responsibility. And that has me dumbfounded.”