BP trial: Oil spill caused massive ecological damage, marine scientist says

NEW ORLEANS — The third phase of the trial to determine BP’s federal fines for its role in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill is underway Wednesday, the second day in three weeks of court hearings.

U.S. prosecutors are arguing that BP should have to pay all of the $13.7 billion in Clean Water Act fines for the disaster, which killed 11 workers and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.

On Tuesday, the U.S. government argued that BP overstated how effective it was in responding to the spill; that the level of resources committed to the disaster by the U.S. Coast Guard was comparable to Hurricane Katrina; and that the spill hit the poorest communities of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast the hardest.

Check back for updates throughout the day from Houston Chronicle energy reporter Collin Eaton as he liveblogs the second day of the trial from New Orleans. And follow Eaton below for updates from the courtroom on Twitter.

2:48 p.m. CST – In cross examination, BP attorney Hariklia Karis questioned Rice about separate water samples from other scientific studies that showed only 22 of 6,000 samples exceeded Environmental Protection Agency benchmarks for Macondo oil concentration.

Rice said he didn’t look into these benchmark data while he was reviewing peer-reviewed data. The witness also said he did not perform analysis of water chemistry data himself.

2:14 p.m. CST — Peer-reviewed studies have shown tuna, killifish larvae and other fish species exposed to BP’s oil in the Gulf have developed decreased heart rates, lower hatching success and hyperplasia in their gill tissues – essentially crippling them in a predator-filled environment, another of the government’s experts said Wednesday afternoon.

Fish exposed to the oil would be able to live in many cases, but their hearts swell and beat slower as they circulate poison to the rest of their tissues, back bone, fins; their ability to take in oxygen is also severely affected, so while “he could walk, so to speak, he can’t run,” said Stanley Rice, a toxicology expert called by U.S. prosecutors to testify in BP’s oil spill trial.

“That’ll probably have a large effect on survival,” Rice said. “They’re basically toast. They might not die from the chemical directly, but they will not survive in the environment.”

The witness’s testimony that animals were harmed after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill is one of the U.S. government’s bids to convince U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier the oil spill was a serious violation and should generate $13.7 billion in environmental fines for BP, and more than $1 billion in fines for Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

Rice said one of BP’s experts, who has concluded the oil has had no significant effects on fish species, has rejected current science and literature specific to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The expert, Rice said, also mischaracterizes methodologies of the studies.

For example, Rice said, BP’s expert characterizes results coming out of laboratories that show harmful effects of oil on fish as a “worst case scenario.” But Rice said he disagrees because laboratories are “a perfect world” to test such effects. Indeed, he said, it is often easy to underestimate the health risks posed to fish in the environment from the lab.

Rice also criticized a BP analysis of water chemistry data, which showed more than half of Gulf water samples had “concerning” toxicity levels in May and June of 2010.

“There’s toxic harm coming from these samples,” Rice said.

11:07 a.m. CST — In a cross examination, BP attorney Mike Brock questioned Boesch’s characterization of “potential harm” to the Gulf environment – which U.S. prosecutors say should weigh against the London oil company.

Brock asked the witness whether his definition of potential harm essentially meant “there might be actual harm but it hasn’t been proven yet.”

In response, Boesch said potential harm “hasn’t been demonstrated … but could be deduced that it is likely to occur.”

In his earlier testimony, Boesch had referred to both actual harm and potential harm in references to environmental damage caused by the oil spill.

“I’ve approached this in a very conservative way,” Boesch said.

Brock’s opening statements at trial Tuesday had included a more positive portrayal of the state of the Gulf of Mexico. He had said BP experts will show the ecology of the region wasn’t destroyed and some fears of the damage in 2010 were overblown.

The British oil major has argued Barbier shouldn’t give much weight to “potential harm” as opposed to the actual, quantified ecological damage that occurred because of the oil spill.

10:34 a.m. CST – Birds, fish and deep-water organisms were killed in big numbers or saw their habitats destroyed as BP’s oil sloshed through the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem five years ago, the U.S. government’s fourth witness said on the second day of BP’s oil spill trial.

“Everywhere the oil went, it created harm,” said Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science at the University of Maryland, in direct questioning. More than 1,100 miles of beaches, marshes and mangroves were oiled along the Gulf Coast, and oil hit 45,000 square miles on the surface of the ocean, he said.

Boesch’s testimony plays into one of the factors the U.S. government is using to demonstrate to U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier the seriousness of the oil spill. It’s one of eight factors that will determine the environmental fines Barbier will set, which could run as high as $13.7 billion. Prosecutors said at trial they are also seeking penalties of more than $1 billion for Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which owned 25 percent of the Macondo well.

Based on studies by Boesch and others, the marine scientist said evidence shows deep-water corals as old as the conquistador Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the United States, as well as seabed organisms fell victim to the spill in the deep waters of the Gulf.

Air-breathing animals including birds, dolphins and sea turtles were killed or suffered health effects, including lung disease, after the BP’s Macondo well blew out and flowed oil from April to July, 2010.

Certain species of seaweed that serve as an important habitat for schooling fish and young sea turtles sank under the weight of oil that rose to the surface of the ocean.

Hydrocarbons entered the food chain through small sun-synthesizing plants called phytoplankton, to bacteria and protozoans, crustaceans and other species living near the surface of the Gulf.

And, Boesch said, hundreds of miles of shoreline habitats for birds and other species, including beaches, marshes and mangroves, were all impacted by the spill.

Hundreds of birds including brown pelicans, laughing gulls, Northern gannets and other birds were found dead, and the scientist projected 100 times more birds than were collected died after the spill, Beosch said.

“It’s worrying population levels are still down,” he said. In the response operations following the spill, more than 170 oiled dolphins were collected, and some of the living showed signs of lung disease and an inability to produce essential hormones.

Eight times the normal number of sea turtle carcasses turned up during the three-month spill. And a massive deep-water plume formed from a mixture of dissolved oil and gas, and caused further harm to bottom-dwelling ocean plants and animals, including essential microbial species that recycle nutrients in the water, Boesch said.

“We don’t know fully about the recoverability of these species – it’s a slow process,” Boesch said. “Something we don’t yet know is how long this effect will last.”

The government’s witness said analysis by one of BP’s experts is too rosy, as it concludes the oil spill caused no significant harm to fish and shellfish populations. Boesch said BP’s expert had only considered coastal fish species, and not offshore fish, and the BP expert’s methods obscured potential harm to fish and crustaceans.

Boesch has not yet been cross examined.

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