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The Devil Went Down to Louisiana: Disaster in the Gulf

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What is the Impact of All that Oil?

To Louisiana State University professor Ed Overton, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the Category 5 hurricane of oil spills. Overton, who also heads a federal chemical hazard assessment team for oil spills says elements of this spill combine to make it particularly damaging and difficult to clean up.

First, unlike other spills, the Gulf disaster didn’t result from a tanker accident like the Exxon Valdez or 2007 Costco Busan in the San Francisco Bay. In those circumstances there were limits to how much oil could end up in the water, but with the Deepwater rig, for all intensive purposes, there is an endless supply of oil gushing from the seabed. It will run out on its own.

Second, the oil pouring out of the broken pipe is a type of crude that mixes easily with water combining to become something like shampoo (which has water in it but can‘t be easily separated out), Penn State engineering professor Anil Kulkarni says. Once mixed together the oil can’t readily evaporate, rinse off or be fed on by oil-grazing microbes.

Third, the Louisiana coast is a far cry from Alaska’s rocky shores. While sandy beaches are apparently the easiest to clean, rocky coastlines are next despite all the nooks and crannies oil can hide in. But by far, wetlands are the hardest to clean.

Although Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of wetlands since the 1930s, the state’s coastal marshes still account for about 40 percent of the wetlands in the entire continental United States.  

Part of the Mississippi’s massive delta, these wetlands are home to many rare and endangered species, as well as serving www.thesunnews.com/2010/05/31/1505058/gulfs-future-looks-grim.htmlas the spawning grounds and nurseries for hundreds of others. In fact, more then 400 fish and wildlife species rely on coastal Louisiana habitats for food, cover, and breeding.

And “90 percent of all the marine species in the Gulf depend on coastal estuaries at some point in their lives." 

The very elements that make marshes perfect protection also make them more vulnerable to oil spills and particularly difficult to clean. Discussing the impact of oil on wetlands on KBOO radio Elise Graneck, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Management at Portland State University explained that rather than staying where it washes, oil penetrates deep into the silty soil. Meanwhile, the microbes that eat oil can’t get enough oxygen in the soil to survive.

Typical remediation efforts in marsh areas have been to burn the oil off, wash it off with high-pressure water, use detergents or dig out the impacted areas. However, at least one study indicated these habitats are so fragile that even sampling may cause damage, and leaving them to recover on their own may be a better long-term solution.

Fourth, the weather hasn’t been helping the situation. High winds and choppy waves have caused oil-laden water to slosh right over the booms that are supposed to contain the spill. The wind and waves are also directing the oil into some of the Gulf’s most sensitive habitats.

Speaking of weather, now that it’s hurricane season, there’s fear that a hurricane could wreck havoc by churning through the oil spill area, and carrying the oil far inland. James H. Cowan, a biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University worries such a storm could impact rice and sugar cane industries.

Computer models are demonstrating that the growing oil slick will likely reach the Gulf Stream and travel up the Atlantic Seaboard by July. While the largest portion of the oil would likely remain offshore, some would still wash up on eastern beaches.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle is concerned that sinking oil will have a devastating impact on rare, deep-sea coral reefs that lie directly below the oil’s path. More than that, she contends that saving the Gulf is vital for our very survival as a species. “We need healthy oceans,” she says. “They are critical to major ecological functions like the water cycle and the oxygen cycle.”

While we don’t yet know the impact the spill will have on many species, the impact on seabirds is visibly devastating. There are countless, heart wrenching descriptions of brown pelicans fishing in oil slick waters and returning to their nests where they feed the deadly concoction to their chicks. It’s nesting season in the Gulf and it takes only a drop or two of oil to destroy a developing egg.

Photographs and videos have documented oil soaked birds, marine mammals and sea turtles. But below oily surface of the Gulf hundreds, if not thousands or hundreds of thousands of fish are also being impacted. Both oil and Corexit kill fish eggs, larvae, coral and shrimp on contact. When larger fish swim through oil it cover their gills and suffocate them. Those that survive may lose their ability to fight disease. And the longer the oil is in the food system, the more contaminants build-up in their bodies until toxic levels are reached.

 Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute believes the environmental devastation will spread far beyond the Gulf, eventually reaching Europe and the arctic. He points out that oceanic life forms come from all around the world to breed and raise their young in the Gulf.

No one really knows what the long-term impact will be. Richard Steiner, a marine biologist formerly at the University of Alaska says that even after 21 years, oil is still washing up on Alaska beaches and most of the 24 species impacted by the spill haven’t recovered to pre-Valdez populations.

Considering that the wetlands of Louisiana are even more sensitive to the impacts of oil, and many times more oil is being dumped into Gulf waters, it could take 50 to 100 years before the Gulf ecosystem fully recovers.

 

Economic Impact

Estimating the long-term financial impact of the catastrophe is almost impossible to do at this point, since the oil is still streaming out of the broken pipe. So far, the economic impact of the spill is being estimated at close to $11.5 billion, says financial firm BBVA Compass economist Nathaniel Karp.

There are two industries in Louisiana—fishing and oil. In the past there’s been a fragile balance maintained between them, but now the BP disaster threatens to destroy both of them. In Louisiana the oil and gas industry employs 58,000 and creates an additional 260,000 oil-related jobs, and local and state officials are trying to stay oil-friendly even as they witness the damage to the fishing industry. 

At stake is a $2.4 billion a year fishery says Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. The Gulf provides one-fifth of total U.S. commercial seafood production and nearly three-quarters of the nation’s shrimp. As of June 16, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service had declared 80,806 square miles closed to commercial fishing. That puts 33 percent of the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off limits.

Last month, the Commerce Department officially declared a commercial fishery disaster, a designation that enables commercial operations to qualify for government grants—which might be essential to tide companies over until BP covers their loses.

But if the worst happens the impact on the fisheries will be far more than a temporary problem, and Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board worries how fishermen will survive. “Their education is on bayous, on marshes, on the Gulf. How do you take that and go somewhere else?”

 

Then there’s the recreational fishing industry, which draws six million sports fishermen to the Gulf a year, supports more than 300,000 jobs and contributes $41 billion dollars to the Gulf Coast economy, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

For another group of Louisianans the spill may cost them far more than just their jobs. With many of their oyster plots, crab traps and shrimp trawls already out of commission, Louisiana’s Houma Indians fear the disaster is the final nail in the coffin of their already beleaguered way of life ().

“It’s a dark day for our people,” says Brenda Dardar-Robichaux principal chief of the United Houma Nation. “It’s a total assault on who we are.”

Made up of 17,000 members, the Houma tribe is scattered along the Louisiana coast where they eke out a living with sustenance fishing.

Because the Houma are (like many other tribes) not federally recognized, they don’t qualify for assistance from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, which maintains that as of June 2, no federally recognized tribe had reported “complications” due to the BP spill.

Meanwhile, residents in New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that occurred five years ago, now worry about the ability of their city’s unique culture to survive in the wake of this latest disaster.

“The whole economic function of (New Orleans) is totally dependent on that water,” says Amy Liu, deputy director of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution. She argues that the city’s economic stability is “being undermined by this oil spill.” 

Where seafood and oil are critical to Louisiana’s survival, tourism is crucial to Florida’s. The sunshine state is terrified it could lose 200,000 jobs and $11 billion dollars if oil washes up on the state’s pristine beaches. According to a University of Central Florida economist that’s the projected impact if Florida’s panhandle counties lose half their annual tourism income. Even a 10 percent drop in visitation could cost the area $2 billion.

That doesn’t even consider the possibility that oil could befoul the rest of Florida beaches or the impact perception plays on behavior. Most of the Gulf Coast has not been hit by the spill yet, but people are already canceling vacations.

For now, the brunt of the economic burden of this disaster is being carried by the fishing industry, followed by the oil and gas industry and tourism. But there are rippling effects, and eventually we are all likely to be impacted financially; whether that is through the price of gas, the scarcity of seafood or the migration of unemployed fishermen to other parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the political impact continues to build as well.