What Happens to the Environment After an Oil Spill?

We need oil. It heats our homes, keeps our engines running, and fuels the most important components of the nation's economy. However, when oil companies make mistakes, their product ends up causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the oceans, coastlines, and the businesses that rely on them. Both short-term and long-term effects of oil spills are devastating for workers, local businesses, and the environment.

The Immediate Environmental Effects

As the dark slick of crude oil spreads, so does the damage. Oil spills harm wildlife above and below the surface of the water. Birds ingest the oil as they attempt to clean themselves, fish experience complications from toxic exposure, and mammals and birds lose insulation from the elements. An oil spill creates a chain reaction that sends an ecosystem into chaos, and many plants and animals lose their food supply and ability to survive. Coral dies, dolphins experience lung issues from fumes, and turtles get stranded on beaches.

Some of the Immediate Effects of Major Oil Spills

During the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, 11 million galls of oil were spilled, devastating ecosystems in one fell swoop.

  • Billions of salmon and herring eggs were wiped out
  • 250,000 or so seabirds were killed
  • 2,800 sea otters perished
  • 300 harbor seals died
  • 250 bald eagles killed

Even some killer whales died in the immediate aftermath of the spill, all devastating blows to a local ecosystem that are still felt decades later, as some of these populations never recovered.

In the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, more than 130 million gallons of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico, and many animals suffered reproductive organ damage and failure, causing "the largest and longest marine mammal unusual mortality event ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico". For instance, about half of the bottlenose dolphin population was lost.

Environmental Effects of an Oil Spill Spread to Economies & People

Shipyards, ports, and other maritime industries can come to a halt after an oil spill. This forced stop in business can be especially hard on recreational and tourist spots, such as resorts, beachside restaurants, diving schools, and the like, as they lose business sometimes for months even after an oil spill has been cleaned up, due to still being perceived as having spoiled beaches.

Fisheries and their equipment also suffer severe losses or get completely stalled. Even if they still have fish to send to market, the questionable quality of that fish is going to hamper business. Industrial plants that rely on seawater also incur losses. The immediate economic losses can turn into long-term challenges for local economies, affecting the livelihoods and futures of the people who depend on these businesses.

Long-Term Environmental Effects of Oil Spills

For years after an oil spill, tar balls wash ashore. These balls of tars are hard on the outside but have a softer core. When they wash ashore, they can burst and contaminate a beach. However, tar balls are not the only long-term threat to the environment. Sometimes, buried oil is brought up to the surface by the surf, contaminating beaches. The delayed-release oil from unburied tar balls has coated mangrove tree roots years after the oil spill had taken place, killing the trees that were holding many little islands together, islands which have since disappeared. Even small amounts of oil left in the water and under sand are enough to harm wildlife and plant life afresh for years to come, well after the initial spill.

Cleanup efforts after an oil spill are unable to do a complete job, and often involve using chemical dispersants that add more damage to wildlife and ecosystems. The work on minimizing the damage of oil spills can only go so far, and even small amounts of success still demand continual, ongoing work. The only way to really protect the environment is to prevent oil spills altogether, otherwise the permanent damage inflicted cannot be undone.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Decades Later

In Alaska, it took nearly 30 years for mussel populations to recover after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2018, it was determined that the other wildlife populations listed earlier had not yet recovered. In fact, the commercial fishery for Pacific herring hadn't reopened yet. Ecosystems and the businesses that rely on them are still in shambles.

The Long-Term Environmental Impact of the Deepwater Horizon Spill

In 2020, a decade after, some wildlife populations were seeing a resurgence, such as the brown pelican, but in other cases, the results have been grim. For instance, in bottlenose dolphins, only 20% or so pregnancies end up in the birth of a viable baby dolphin, compared to what is normally an 83% success rate. In fact, this reproductive failure among these dolphins might still be growing worse over time.

Spotted sea trout numbers are still too low, and deep-sea coral, common loons, and other species have yet to be restored to the numbers seen before the spill. Coral colonies still show signs of damage a decade later, as they're very slow growing, which is bad news for shrimp, crabs, and other species that call corals home. As for five of the already endangered species of sea turtle, more than 400,000 of them were exposed to the oil spill, and that has led to a substantial drop in reproductive rates.

Oil Spills Must Be Prevented

Oil spills do much more than harm the environment—they also claim human lives. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 11 people and injured 17 more. In the aftermath, cleanup workers themselves and the U.S. Coast Guard were in contact with oil, and as of 2018, many of them are reporting difficulties breathing, lung damage, and impaired cardiac health as a result. Hundreds of families lost their livelihood when their coastal businesses were choked by the oil spill.

When an oil accident occurs, it means that something went seriously wrong during a drilling project. Companies must prevent these accidents from happening for the sake of workers, the environment, and the economy. If you've suffered from the repercussions of an oil spill in any way, call the attorneys at Arnold & Itkin today at (888) 346-5024. Our attorneys have experience helping those suffering from oil industry accidents.

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