The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill – Ocean catastrophe or not?
As the broken BP oil well continues to spew and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has started to invade Louisiana salt marshes and land on beaches, more and more focus and resources are being sent landward. But being an Ocean guy, I have to ask, what’s going to happen to the Ocean? The unfortunate answer is that nobody really knows even though some intrepid scientists have been SCUBA diving in this caustic mess. What they have found is downright scary and bodes ill for a vast marine ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Coast economies that depend on it.
The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill is bigger than we have been lead to believe.
First is that there is a lot more oil that has spilled into the Ocean than we have been lead to believe. That’s the most likely reason that BP, which has had live video 24/7 at the damaged well head, has been so reluctant to release footage. After access to the video was finally granted – weeks into the spill, it allowed independent scientists to estimate a flow rate that turned out to be multiple times greater than what was being reported by BP. The second piece is that dispersants are being used at an unprecedented level (in terms of amounts and depth) to break up the oil. The problem is that this doesn’t remove the oil from the environment; it just breaks it up into smaller pieces which is both good and bad. It’s worth noting that the unprecedented used of dispersants is a political decision because it hides a lot of the oil and keeps it from coming ashore. In other words, it keeps a lot of the oil from being in front of video cameras and on the evening news.
What is the damage being done to the Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill?
So what is in a “dispersant?’ Dispersants essentially break the oil from a bigger slick into smaller balls or droplets. Corexit 9527 is being used extensively by BP despite it being toxic enough to be banned in the UK. It contains a compound that ruptures red blood cells in whatever eats it. The EPA limited the amount of dispersants that BP could employ but BP exceeded the limit nonetheless. So not only are we now dealing with the impact of the oil on the marine food web but incredibly toxic chemicals that are being injected in massive amounts. Over 600,000 gallons of dispersant has been used and Federal officials have expressed the need for more toxicology studies on the dispersants, and whether dispersed oil is any less of a threat than non-dispersed oil. This volume of dispersants used at this depth has never been tried before – an unsettling theme that comes up again and again with the Gulf oil spill.
The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill goes right up the food chain
One of the problems with breaking down the oil is that it is now entering the food chain at the planktonic level – which is the foundation for all life in the Ocean and everything that depends on it. The oil is being consumed by filter feeders and other animals that normally feed on the planktonic soup that floats around in the Ocean. The only problem is that now they are getting a toxic mouthful as well. Chemicals from the oil spill will concentrate in the planktonic life and the life that eats them and then gets magnified as it moves its way up the food chain to things like the game fish we get at grocery stores and eat in restaurants. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen here but future toxicology reports from fish caught in the Gulf will be interesting to say the least. We’ve really soiled our own bed this time.
What should we do about the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill?
I’m not sure and that’s the problem. Not that I’m not sure … but that nobody is. We’re in uncharted territory here in so many ways. We’ve never had an oil spill in the Gulf this big in this area. We don’t know exactly where or how far the currents will take the oil or what impact they will have on salt marshes. We don’t know where the large submerged plumes of oil are going to end up. We don’t know what the toxic effects are going to be on the ecosystem. We’ve never used this volume of toxic dispersants. Heck, we don’t even know how to plug the damn thing.
Sound frustrating? It is for a lot of people because their livelihoods are being directly affected by a company and industry that didn’t have a plan for when things went really bad. This scenario – that the main failsafe fails to work – isn’t that farfetched. But judging by results, it wasn’t seriously considered or maybe it was and discounted because of costs. In any event, there was no good plan which is why we are on Plan Z now and still trying to cap a broken wellhead a month after it exploded. It’s no surprise that regulation and oversight of the gas and oil industry has become lax to say the least. Now, we are reaping the results of that. We, as a society and as taxpayers, are going to bear significant hard dollar costs for both the clean up and the economic and environmental impacts of the spill. What an extremely high cost to pay to implement regulations that should have been there all along. That’s something that has to change, now.
Meanwhile, we’ve got to figure out the least environmentally damaging way to work with the current Gulf oil spill and reduce its impacts. Especially all the damage being done under the waves that we aren’t seeing and isn’t in front of the cameras.
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