Unknown Environmental Damage
Harm to Gulf from oil spill unclear
Environmental damage may not be known for years, panel says
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE
GALVESTON — So how much harm did the BP oil spill cause to the Gulf of Mexico?
It’s a crucial and necessary question, but one that will take years, if not decades, to answer, a panel of scientific experts said Wednesday.
“I caution anyone who says that we’re on our way to recovery after a year or two,” marine biologist Tom Shirley told a gathering of public officials, researchers and conservationists at the Restore America’s Estuaries conference here.
The ecological toll of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been evident for months with the images of oil-soaked pelicans and grassy marshes turning black.
But to get a fuller picture of the injury to the Gulf, the federal government has plans for more than 100 separate studies, said Cynthia Dohner, who oversees U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service activities in 11 southeast states.
The goal, Dohner said, is to restore the Gulf to its state before the ill-fated Macondo well sent millions of barrels of oil gushing into the sea. An accounting of the losses is also a priority because it will be the government’s primary tool to hold BP accountable for the spill.
“You have to compensate for the injuries, so you have to understand what they are,” Dohner said.
A primary focus will be the marshes along Louisiana‘s coast. That’s because the wetlands provide functions beyond producing seafood, such as cleaning water of pollution and buffering New Orleans and the rest of the state from storm surges.
In recent years, Louisiana has been losing a football field’s worth of its marshes every 38 minutes, a process that has been accelerated by canals dredged through the wetlands, mostly used by the oil and gas industry.
Irving Mendelssohn, a wetlands expert at Louisiana State University and adviser to BP, said federal officials must determine if the spill has quickened the pace of marsh loss.
“We don’t know if it has,” he said, “but there is clearly the potential.”
Mendelssohn said studies show oil fouled 419 miles of wetlands, particularly along Barataria Bay and at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but it could have been worse.
Much of the interior marshes, which are harder to protect and to clean, were spared, he said.
Still, he said it won’t be until spring – the time for rebirth in the natural cycle – before it’s clear how much oil penetrated the soil below the marsh grasses, Mendelssohn said.
Attempts to measure the impact in the Gulf may be more complex, considering its astonishing array of life.
The north-northeast part of the Gulf, the area closest to the runaway well, contains at least 8,300 species of plants and animals, according to the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi.
“If you were looking for a worst-place scenario for this spill, that’s it,” said Shirley, who is one of the researchers at the Harte Institute.
Shirley said officials should be conservative in their estimates for the Gulf’s recovery, noting the collapse of the Pacific herring fishery in the Prince William Sound four years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
And scientists still do not understand what devastated the herring population, which used to be harvested each year by the tens of thousands of tons but has not recovered and may never return.