Petroleum compounds from BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago and some of the chemicals used to clean it are being found in pelican colonies nesting in Minnesota, according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio.
Tens of thousands of pelicans descend on Marsh Lake in the western part of the state each year after wintering on the Gulf of Mexico. The birds span out across the Gulf, going as far south as Cuba to escape the colder weather. This year, some 34,000 American White Pelicans are raising about 17,000 chicks on Marsh Lake, making it the largest such pelican colony in North America.
Researchers with North Dakota State University have been testing pelican eggs for signs of pollutants from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. So far, petroleum compounds were found in 90 percent of the first batch of eggs tested. Corexit, the chemical oil dispersant that BP dumped into the Gulf waters to break the oil down into smaller particles, was found in about 80 percent of the tested eggs.
Because of the BP oil spill’s unprecedented size, much remains to be learned about its aftermath, including how pollutants from the spill will affect this new generation of pelicans.
“Even if they’re present in small amounts they may have a large impact on the development [of pelican chicks],” North Dakota State University ecologist Mark Clark told Minnesota Public Radio.
What scientists do know about the effects of pollutants on wildlife has them concerned for the pelicans. According to MPR, “Scientists are most concerned about polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons known to cause cancer and birth defects in animals.”
Even less is known about Corexit’s effects on wildlife, but the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed the oil dispersant contains cancer-causing chemicals and endocrine disrupting compounds, which can upset hormone balance and negatively affect embryo development.
BP sprayed and injected the oil gushing from its blown-out Macondo well with about 2 million gallons of Corexit, continuing to use it even after EPA officials objected.
“Any contaminant that makes its way into the bird could be bad, but it could be especially bad if it gets into the egg because that’s where the developing embryo and chick starts,” Mr. Clark told MPR. “And when things go wrong at that stage there’s usually no recovery.”
Scientists studying the migratory pelicans won’t get a full picture of the biological and ecological damage and its extent for at least five years. The current project in Minnesota is funded through the year 2014 by a $250,000 grant from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is funded by the state lottery.