Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill "An Environmental Tragedy"
    2010-06-12 06:38:51     Xinhua      Web Editor: Jiang Aitao

by Betty Martin

Two months since BP company's Deepwater Horizon exploded and oil gushed from below a mile-deep ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico -- unleashing 20,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil daily -- final costs and damages to the ecosystems are still unknown.

Government leaders and environmentalists, however, are already calling the damage to fragile coastal marshes and wetlands -- and the toll on micro-organisms, fishing and shrimping industries and wildlife -- a U.S. environmental nightmare.

"The BP oil spill is the worst environmental disaster of its kind in our nation's history," said President Barack Obama in a mass e-mail rally of supporters on June 10.

Obama also noted in the e-mail that his administration "has deployed every tool at our disposal for the response efforts," and that "thousands are working around the clock, including some of the top scientists and engineers from around the world."

Jim Blackburn, Houston attorney originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, a few miles from where the oil slick has threatened beaches, marshes and protected wetlands, called it "an environmental tragedy."

"The Louisiana marshes may well be lost forever. The vegetation likely will die. Right now, there is significant erosion of Louisiana's marshes -- even without the oil -- and that vegetation holds the boot of Louisiana together. If you lose the base that is holding the soil in place, the roots, the vegetation will eventually die."

Blackburn holds a master's degree in environmental science from Rice University in Houston. He is adjunct professor and lecturer in environmental law in Rice's Environmental Sciences and Engineering Department. He has been honored for his coastal preservation efforts from Texas Southern University, the Houston Press, the state of Texas and the National Wildlife Federation. He also authored "The Book of Texas Bays" in 2004.

While cameras have focused on oil-soaked birds after the spill, Blackburn said the plight of the birds is almost the least pressing problem.

"Thousands of acres are wasting away, the marshes that support the fish life, oyster beds, crabs, recreational game fish," he said. "Now we find that the oil has been found in deeper water and may extend beyond sub-surface plumes."

While Blackburn said the oil spill and the response to it will become the benchmark by which future environmental disasters are judged, particularly if it oil continues to pollute the Gulf.

This will foster appropriate changes in environmental law, he said, which was not as stringent as it should have been. Within days of the spill, the government divided the mineral management service from the offices that was supposed to oversee and regulate it.

A relief well to replace the leaking well is being drilled, but is not expected to be completed until August. Previous attempts to cap the well have not been completely successful.

"What you are seeing now will become magnified. I'm not sure anybody's got a solution to this," Blackburn said. "The whole focus has been on the hydrocarbons. Very little focus is an environmental focus on the safety of deep-water drilling. The assumption has been that the (oil companies) knew what they are doing, that an accident would be controlled. Nobody went past that. "

Monica Allen, public affairs officer for the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of several government agencies now monitoring the oil spill spread from Louisiana marshes to the Florida Keys, said the office is testing fish and marsh land habitats. It also is conducting rescue efforts to capture, clean and rehabilitate wildlife, including endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles and three other turtle species.

"We're monitoring the water below the surface and above the surface, as well as what's happening on the shoreline," Allen said. "We're doing whatever we can do to mitigate the damage."

NOAA, the country's scientific resource after an oil spill, is testing and conducting rescue operations to locate, clean and rehabilitate fisheries, mammals, sea turtles and other sea creatures and wildlife found in and around the Gulf Coast.

"We put our report about what we are observing and what we are doing on the web site every day," Allen said. "As of yesterday, a total of 331 sea turtles were found in the area, stranded dead or stranded alive and picked up by our on-water operations."

Some of the turtles were heavily oiled from areas where cross- currents converge, an area where turtles feed, drawn by plentiful sargassum mats of algae.

"We can't predict the short- term or long-term damage, but we know what we are seeing," Allen said. "We picked up 30 turtles that were heavily oiled and were able to bring those back. Two were dead and three have since died, but 25 are being cleaned and rehabilitated."

Turtles that have been in contact with the oil may also have damages to their internal organs and their ability to breath, she said.

People haven't seen as many stranded dolphins. Of 38 dolphins found, 36 were found dead and the other two died since their rescue, and only one had external evidence of oil.

So far, 42 turtles have been sent to rehabilitation centers, with or without evidence of oil, Allen said. "We are partnering with other agencies, such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife. It's a tremendous effort."


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