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In this April 21, 2010 file aerial photo, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico. (Associated Press)

In this April 21, 2010 file aerial photo, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico. (Associated Press)

Group: Dolphin, turtle deaths a sign of sick Gulf of Mexico

Last Modified: Tuesday, April 02, 2013 8:00 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Continuing deaths of dolphins and sea turtles are a sign that the Gulf of Mexico is still feeling effects from the 2010 spill that spewed 200 million gallons of oil from a well a mile below the surface, a prominent environmental group said Tuesday.

The deaths — especially in dolphins, which are at the top of the food chain — are "a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem," said National Wildlife Federation senior scientist Doug Inkley.

"Both species have very high mortality the first year, slightly lower the second year and the third year even lower, but still well above average," Inkley said. "To have these deaths above average for so long a period of time is unprecedented."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service has said previously that many turtles probably drowned in shrimp nets and that brucellosis, a bacterial infection, was the only common thread in the dolphin deaths.

NOAA cannot comment about Inkley's statement because its investigation of the deaths is part of the federal tally of environmental damage for oil spill litigation, spokeswoman Connie Barclay said.

The federation's report, "Restoring a Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Three Years into the Gulf Oil Disaster," was based on previously reported research by other scientists, including NOAA's updates on the dolphin and sea turtle strandings.

Studies of the spill's effects on wildlife are preliminary and still being analyzed, said Craig Savage, spokesman for BP America's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization.

"No company has done more, faster to respond to an industrial accident than BP did in response to the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010," he said in an emailed statement. "As a result of our $14 billion cleanup effort, BP-funded early restoration projects as well as natural recovery processes, the Gulf is returning to its baseline condition — the condition it would be in if the accident had not occurred."

The key to restoring the Gulf is conserving coastal wetlands, and it's critical to make sure that any fines imposed from the trial now in progress in New Orleans go to that purpose, said Inkley and David Muth, director of the federation's Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program.

The trial will assign a percentage of responsibility among BP PLC and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion April 20, 2010. It will also decide penalties under both the Clean Water Act and the National Resource Damage Assessment process.

NRDA uses scientific research to assess environmental damage and decide how to fix it. Under the RESTORE Act of 2012, 80 percent of all Clean Water Act fines will go to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

BP has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other charges and agreed to pay $4 billion in criminal penalties in a settlement resolving its criminal liability for the spill. In separate federal settlements, rig owner Transocean Ltd. pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and agreed to pay a total of $1.4 in civil and criminal penalties.

The federation looked at how coastal wetlands and six species of animals are doing in the Gulf three years after the spill, basing its assessment on historical status and what the future looks like as well as the spill's effect.

It rated the status of coastal wetlands, Atlantic bluefin tuna, and sea turtles as poor; bottlenose dolphins and deep-sea coral as fair; and shrimp and brown pelicans as good.

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