The Impact of Oil and Other Contaminants on Wildlife

Roger Helm, a former senior scientist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service gave a presentation about oil spills titled “Crude Awakening, From the Exxon Valdez to the BP Gulf Spill.”

The Collider and Asheville Museum of Science cohosted a presentation titled “Crude Awakening, From the Exxon Valdez to the BP Gulf Spill.”

Dr. Roger Helm, a former senior scientist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service was the speaker. In his 25 years with the USFWS, Helm’s focus was assessing the impact of oil and other contaminants on wildlife and pursuing restoration claims against companies that harmed wildlife or their habitat.

Helm began this work following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and most recently led the Department of the Interior’s damage assessment team following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Helm said working on climate change issues for the past ten years, and oil spill issues for almost his entire career, he could easily go down the path of negativity, but that’s not what he came to do.

“The realities are pretty grim, but I’m hoping you’ll walk away feeling pretty good about what the federal government has actually done, and about what the states governments and the tribal governments have done when there’s been an oil spill.” Helm said the Exxon Valdez was one disaster that ultimately led to a really great outcome for the environment. Helm’s responsibilities involved natural resources including birds, endangered species, and refuge lands, “anything you can think of in nature from worms to birds and mammals.”     

A major oil spill would involve more than 100,000 gallons. The Nestucca oil spill off the outer coast of Washington in 1991 resulted in injuries that resulted in over 13,000 bird carcasses collected. “That means there’s a lot more dead birds, 50,000 to 70,000. One hundred and ten miles of coastline was oiled. Five national wildlife refuges were impacted, and one national park. To address that issue the environment got $500,000, which is not very much money.”

Helm said the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was found to involve a captain with a serious drinking problem who at 1:00 a.m. told his second mate to get the ship out of the Valdez Harbor. He in turn told the third mate to execute the pullout. Avoiding ice they collided with Bligh Reef and subsequently spilled about 10,800,000 gallons of oil. The spill occurred at the Prince William Sound, and Helm was investigating impacts 400 miles away between Kodiak Island and the Alaskan Peninsula three months after the spill.   

“Even 400 miles away there were lots of dead birds and sea otters. We have a much better rehabilitation outcome for live oiled birds today. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the injury, there were more than 300,000 sea birds killed, 250 bald eagles, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, and 32 killer whales. Lots of sea otters got hammered, and all the birds were hit pretty hard.” Estimates for the number of sea birds killed in this event are up to 600,000, depending on which model you look at. Oil can still be found one foot deep in the soil on Prince William Sound, 17 years after the fact.

Costs are quantified in “millions” and “billions” of dollars. Since the numbers sound alike, Helm suggested a comparison to give those figures a relative scale. It would take person counting a million dollars, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at one dollar a second, a little over 11.6 days. Counting a billion dollars in the same way would take 31.6 years.

Exxon had a $5 billion judgment against them in punitive damages, litigated all the way to the Supreme Court. They ended up paying only $500,000. “The really good thing that came out of this is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It gave federal, state and tribal governments a lot of power to go after companies that release oil,” Helm said.

Here’s how a maritime mishap can actually lead to the complete destruction of an entire island. Rose Island is an oceanic atoll within the U.S. territory of American Samoa. Its reef is made primarily of red coralline alga. Rose atoll had the cleanest giant clam population in the world, and was the most important breeding area for 12 species of sea birds and three species of sea turtles for several hundred to 1,000 miles.

In 1993 a Taiwanese long-line fishing vessel ran into the reef. A typhoon came through and the vessel broke up before the Coast guard could tow it away. It spilled 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel, which killed the coralline alga, but iron from the broken ship made the impact worse. Normally, high energy waves would clean out the pollution and the reef would recover, but in the Pacific iron is a limiting nutrient to the blue-green algae that had overgrown the reef and prevented the regrowth of its coralline alga. Without the reef, the island would be smashed by waves and washed away.

“Under the Oil Pollution Act we made an uncompensated claim with the Coast Guard for the work we needed to do to rehabilitate the reef at Rose Atoll,” Helm said. A Samoan crew was hired, and removed 75 tons of iron and metallic debris from the water, the reef was restored, and Rose Island continues to host breeding birds and turtles. 

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) also empowered the Coast Guard to engage in much more rigorous inspections of vessels, with impressive fines for violations, and made offending companies financially liable for natural resource damage assessments, and restorations. The laws are not punitive, but focused upon restoration, which in some instances can be very expensive. As a result, damages awarded for oil spills have become in some cases exponentially more costly for companies than they were years ago.

The pre-OPA 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill released 10,800,000 gallons of oil, resulting in a of a settlement of $3,507,500,000. The post-OPA 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill released 176,000,000 gallons of oil into the environment, resulting in a settlement of $42,800,000,000. And additional beneficial outcome to the OPA is that the size and number of oil spills has continued to significantly drop since 1990 (see chart).

“So now we’re seeing something that I think is very positive over the past years since the Valdez spill. We’re really seeing the environment getting its due 25-plus years later, getting the dollars needed, because you know congress hasn’t been real friendly to natural resource agencies for quite a while. It’s not just this particular group. There’s been a lot of work that would have otherwise not been done, that needed to be done, that has come from these kinds of settlements,” Helm said.

By Mark-Ellis Bennett