Oil Spill: How Bad is the Damage?

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Over on the main page, TIME’s Michael Grunwald has a contrarian take on the Gulf oil spill. Far from being the greatest environmental catastrophe in American history—as everyone from President Obama to, well, me has said—Grunwald reports that the damage seems to have been limited. The number of bird kills is far lower than those occurring after the Exxon Valdez spill, much of the surface oil has already begun to break down in the warm Gulf waters and the sensitive wetlands of Louisiana have largely escaped serious oiling:

The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak; it’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.

I think it’s far too early to declare the oil spill a bust. It’s true that the coastlines don’t seem to have experienced the damage they might have—though as Mother Jones’s Mac McClelland points out, there’s definitely still oil in the waters and the beaches. (One of the challenges of covering this spill has been geography—as Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has said, it’s like fighting hundreds or thousands of smaller spills, each of which can hit hundreds of miles of coastlines. It’s the fog of environmental war—just because one island hasn’t been hit by oil doesn’t mean another might not be, and vice versa.) In some ways the Gulf coast lucked out—the hurricane that could have pushed oil much further inland never happened, and with the spill stopped and the oil evaporating, it’s not likely too. (In fact, the one storm that did hit the area—Bonnie—probably did more good than harm.) There was no way of knowing that when the well was still gushing and apocalyptic scenarios about oil raining from the sky seemed more likely.
Grunwald is definitely right that for all the attention paid to the spill, the greater catastrophe is the gradual erosion of Louisiana’s coastline, marred by decades of ill-considered engineering projects and shredded by canals for oil and gas exploration. The spill will accelerate the coastal loss, but it’s just one symptom of a greater disease, one that deserves far more attention and money that it has gotten, as Grunwald himself—a great environmental reporter–has always written:
The disappearance of more than 2,000 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.”
But look beyond the coastline. The truth is we know very little about what the release of tens of millions of gallons of oil underwater will do to the marine ecosystems of the Gulf. Add in the application of some 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants, which have never been used—and were never meant to be used—in such vast quantities. We know that there are oil plumes under the water—but we don’t know what they might be doing to marine life. And there are great fears that the Gulf’s rich fisheries might take years to recover. The spill hit during the nursery season, and might have damaged oysters, shrimp and other species when they were young and vulnerable. 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, fisheries in Prince William Sound haven’t fully recovered, and nearly every fisherman you meet on the Gulf coast worries the same thing will happen to the waters they once plied.
Grunwald is taking a land-centric view of the spill—as long as the oil doesn’t show up on the beach, it’s probably not doing much damage. But that’s far from clear today, just a little over 100 days from the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. Tony Hayward—and God help me, Rush Limbaugh—are right in one way: the Gulf of Mexico is vast, and as a body of water it’s practically designed to break down oil. We may have poured almost 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, along with 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants—and as many as 126 million gallons of oil are unaccounted for, not cleaned up, not skimmed and not burned. Much of that has likely broken down—but we don’t know how much is gone, and how much is still lurking somewhere. If we could see the depths of the Gulf as easily as we could view the white sands of Pensacola, we’d feel differently about this spill. The Gulf coast might get lucky, but that doesn’t mean the Gulf will. Our national attention span may be short, but it is far, far too early to declare victory.
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