(Nov. 6) -- Scientists have found dead coral in the Gulf of Mexico only a few miles from where the BP oil well blew out six months ago, raising new concerns that damage from the massive spill may be worse than reported.
"The compelling evidence that we collected constitutes a smoking gun," Charles Fisher, a Penn State University biologist and expedition leader, said in a statement. "The circumstantial evidence is extremely strong and compelling because we have never seen anything like this -- and we have seen a lot."
Lophelia II 2010 / AP
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Working aboard a research vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists used a robot to survey an area measuring 130 feet by 50 feet some 4,600 feet deep and about seven miles from from BP's Macondo wellhead, the Los Angeles Times reported. They found that hard coral was producing mucus and had turned brown, and soft coral formations had large bare areas. By contrast, coral communities elsewhere in the gulf studied over the years showed no changes, the newspaper said.
Fisher said that the normally brightly colored coral has "been dying for months" and that the BP gusher is likely to blame. "The visual data for recent and ongoing death are crystal clear and consistent over at least 30 colonies; the site is close to the Deep Water Horizon, the research site is at the right depth and direction to have been impacted by a deep-water plume, based on NOAA models and empirical data, and the impact was detected only a few months after the spill was contained," he said.
Scientists have identified about 25 additional areas near the blowout site where they think similar damage might be evident, and those will be examined next month, The Associated Press reported.
The findings are likely to reignite a debate over the extent of the environmental damage caused by the release of 170 million gallons of oil from the BP blowout and how accurately it has been assessed. Many scientists and environmentalists reacted with skepticism to a federal report in August stating that 70 percent of the spilled oil had either been captured, burned or naturally dispersed.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a statement that "given the toxic nature of oil and the unprecedented amount of oil spilled, it would be surprising if we did not find damage," The New York Times reported. "This is precisely why we continue to actively monitor and evaluate the impact of the spill in the gulf."
Lubchenco said the agency is "determined to hold the responsible parties accountable for the damage done to the environment."