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NEWS RELEASE · 16th April 2010
CP
Exxon Valdez oil is still being ingested by area wildlife two decades after millions of litres of crude oil spilled out of the tanker and into Alaska's Prince William Sound, a researcher at Simon Fraser University has found.

In a study published in the April issue of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Daniel Esler says harlequin ducks have shown long-term exposure to oil, proving such spills can't just be measured in years.

``One of the more remarkable and unanticipated findings of recent research is the length of time over which animals were exposed to residual oil,'' Esler said.

``We believe it is important to recognize that the duration of presence of residual oil and its associated effects are not limited to a few years after spills, but for some vulnerable species, may occur over decades.''

The Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on March 24, 1989, and lost approximately 42 million litres of oil.

The spill damaged 2,100 kilometres of shoreline, cost local fishermen millions of dollars, destroyed billions of salmon and herring eggs and killed thousands of sea birds.

Esler, a research associate at the B.C. university's centre for wildlife ecology, said it would have been unprecedented at the time of the spill to consider animals would still be exposed to oil this long after the accident.

``That's one of the major things that's come out of the research following the Exxon Valdez spill, is just the timeline over which some . . . of these consequences of the spill occur,'' he said.

Esler's team began its research in March 2009, the same month the spill marked its 20-year anniversary.

The team looked specifically at harlequin ducks because the marine animals live in inter-tidal and shallow sub-tidal areas, regions which have been known to have oil.

The ducks are also especially vulnerable to oil pollution because they eat invertebrates that have limited ability to metabolize residual oil.

The researchers captured the ducks, put them under anaesthesia and took a small piece from each animal's liver. They used the biological marker CYP1A, or Cytochrome P4501A.

``All vertebrates including us have enzymes that are induced upon exposure to certain contaminants or other chemicals,'' he said.

``Cytochrome P4501A is specifically induced to a pretty small number of chemicals, including crude oil, and so that makes it both a specific and sensitive indicator of exposure to oil.''

Esler's team sent its samples to a laboratory and when they returned oil had been detected.

``The big lesson is just to appreciate how long the oil can remain in the environment and how long wildlife populations and communities can be exposed,'' he said.

``And this is relevant really in lots of different situations, both in terms of understanding the effects of catastrophic spills like the Exxon Valdez but also in terms of risk assessments for things like pipelines and drilling.''

Pipelines have been a hot-button issue in B.C. in recent months.

In March, a coalition of First Nations declared it will do whatever it takes to stop a proposed pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast.

More than 150 First Nations, businesses, environmental organizations and prominent Canadians have signed on to try and stop the pipeline proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., arguing the risk of a spill is just too great.

When asked about Esler's findings, Gerald Amos, a Coastal First Nations spokesman and Haisla Nation councillor, said it doesn't surprise him.

``We've had a pretty good sense that was the case already, before the report came out,'' he said.

``It is another confirmation of the decision we made being the right one.''

Jennifer Lash, executive director of the Living Oceans Society, agreed.

``We know from studies in the past there's been concerns around the long-term impacts around pink salmon stocks, on the killer whale population, and now we're seeing as a result of this study the long-term impact on marine birds,'' she said.

``To think that for some reason British Columbia is different and we can have tankers here and we won't face an oil spill is, I think, ludicrous. It's not a matter of if a spill happens, it's when.''

Enbridge has touted the benefits of the pipeline project, saying more than 4,000 construction jobs and thousands more indirect jobs would be created, while generating hundreds of millions in tax revenue.

The company says on its website it has safely carried petrochemicals out of a port in Kitimat for 25 years.

Esler said it's not his job to lay out policy, he's just reporting the facts.

``We need to understand exactly how oil acts in the environment and how wildlife might be affected by that,'' he said.

A study last January found that tens of thousands of litres of crude oil remain trapped along gravel beaches as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill.