The right spill response: cautious optimism about the Gulf’s future

The New York Times published an article at the weekend about the potential long term hidden damage caused by oil spills and their clean-up efforts, and it makes for interesting reading. What is most fascinating is the not-so glum picture that is painted of the future of the Gulf of Mexico.

scientists who have worked to survey and counteract the damage from spills say the picture in the gulf is far from hopeless. “Thoughts that this is going to kill the Gulf of Mexico are just wild overreactions,” said Jeffrey W. Short, a scientist who led some of the most important research after the Exxon Valdez spill and now works for an environmental advocacy group called Oceana. “It’s going to go away, the oil is. It’s not going to last forever.

In May when BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, said that the Gulf oil spill was “tiny in relation to the total water volume“, although seen as a PR disaster at the time, he was technically correct. Ecologically, the Gulf of Mexico is adapted to break down the oil in its waters more so than anywhere else in the world. But, how quickly and completely cannot as yet be determined and these are the pressing concerns of environmental activists and scientists.

Early signs of damage from the BP spill are alarming. According to federal statistics, since the start of the spill in April, almost 2,200 birds and 500 turtles have been found dead. Nearly 590 miles of Gulf shoreline are oiled, with the biggest the chunk of it Louisiana marsh, affecting economically crucial fisheries such as shrimp and crabs. Scientists say waters are filled with submerged plumes of dispersed oil and methane which some say are reducing the underwater oxygen levels, threatening marine life. Although it may be difficult to process given how badly polluted the coastline is, longterm prospects for the Gulf remain relatively optimistic.

“The [Louisiana] marshes are damaged but not dead”, said Kerry St. Pe, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in southern Louisiana. Many of the young shrimp and fish that would be maturing in the marshes at this time of year are probably dead, he said, and black mangroves, a marsh plant whose vertical tubes are particularly sensitive to oil, have taken a hit. And yet, he said, “we know that those marshes will live.”

But the way in which to minimise damage wholly depends on the manner in which the spill clean-up is conducted, as rigorous measures to repair the affected areas can often do more harm than good. Prime examples are the Amoco Cadiz disaster in 1978 and Exxon Valdez in 1989 . Evidence shows that human reponses hoping to mitigate the effects of a spill can often intensify them.

When the Amoco Cadiz oil tanker split in two, three miles off the coast of Normandy it released 227,000 tons of heavy crude oil that seeped into 200 miles of coastline. As the damaged area was so great, only the worst-affected economically were treated with detergents.

“The concentration of detergents and other chemicals used to clean up sites contaminated by oil spills can cause environmental nightmares of their own,” says Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division who has studied such notorious oil-spill sites.

“The untreated coastal areas were fully recovered within five years of the Amoco Cadiz spill,” says Hazen. “As for the treated areas, ecological studies show that 30 years later, those areas still have not recovered.”

While the media may not be able to monitor in detail the spill clean-up, let’s hope some lessons are learnt from past catastrophes and the “right response” is found to ensure that the least amount of damage is done to the Gulf of Mexico. The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit environmental organisation that recently worked on a project to re-seed oyster beds devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, released a report last week on how best to restore some of the freshwater rivers that are needed to sustain a healthy Gulf ecosystem. The report, while presenting one set of ideas, outlines key actions to take to reverse the long-term damage and restore the area’s natural infrastructure.

The Gulf’s environmental toll has become clearer and clean-up costs are already well on their way to $4bn. But while nature is adept at healing itself, it can only be pushed so far.