As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the
Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.
An oil-covered pelican flaps its
wings on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on
Sunday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican and other
birds, is being hit by oil washing ashore.
AP photo by Patrick Semansky
Sitting here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still dazed by the
realization that an oil well, nearly a mile under water, has gone
out of control, spewing millions of gallons of crude and creating
an underwater mess bigger than what we see on the surface.
I cannot fathom that we are experiencing a disaster likely to be
many times worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez. Until somebody figures
out how to turn off the flow of oil, we can’t begin to estimate the
size of this catastrophe or imagine that things will get
BP is hoping that a process, never used underwater, will stop
the flow of oil. The technique, called a “top kill” and performed
on above-ground wells in the Middle East, involves shooting heavy
mud and cement into the well. The first shot could come tomorrow.
Chances of success are estimated at 60-70 percent by BP, but the
company’s track record for estimates has not been good so far.
Oily dead birds and other sea life, predicted weeks ago, are
washing up on shore. Sensitive marsh lands, impossible to clean
without destroying them, have been touched. Longtime fishermen and
fishing communities are shut down.
“Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Charles
Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain told reporters for the
Los Angeles Times. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All
your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea.
And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”
Yesterday, I joined a telephone press conference with Lisa
Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She
was doing her best to calmly cope with the enormity of the
disaster. She had just come off a boat after witnessing oil piling
up on shore. Joining her was Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who
is in charge of the National Response Team.
Jackson said the federal government has ordered BP to cut back
on the use of dispersants, which break up the oil but may have some
toxic effects. No formal studies have ever been conducted on the
effects of applying huge quantities of dispersants underwater, but
limited studies in recent days suggest that this approach may be
the least harmful method to keep the oil from coming ashore.
Without such treatment, the oil itself is highly toxic and a
much greater concern, she said. BP has been ordered to look for
less toxic alternatives than the dispersant currently being used,
but safer alternatives may not be available in the quantities
needed. Meanwhile, Jackson said her staff believes the treatment
can be equally effective by using half or less the amount of
chemical applied until now.
Keeping as much oil off the shorelines as possible seems to be
the top priority. That starts by keeping some of the oil immersed
as tiny droplets underwater. Oil that reaches the surface is
attacked by skimmers and burned if necessary. Fighting the oil with
absorbent booms and pads along the shore is the last step.
I hope this strategy is not one of “out of sight, out of mind,”
because the oil immersed in the water becomes a problem of its own.
It’s been compared to a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing
that you shake up, breaking the oil into tiny globules that float
around. Smaller globules are believed to degrade faster in the
Still, with this oil starting 5,000 feet below the surface, it
could take months or years to coalesce, rise to the surface and
come ashore, where cleanup crews could be facing oil damage for an
undetermined amount of time.
“I’m afraid we’re just seeing the beginning of what is going to
be a long, ugly summer,” Ed Overton, who has consulted on oil
spills for three decades, told Bob Marshall, a reporter with the
New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but I
think what we’re in for is seeing a little bit come in each day at
different places for a long, long time — months and months. That’s
not what I said in the beginning of this. But events have made me
amend my thoughts.”
Some constituents of the oil will never come ashore but will
drop to the bottom of the Gulf in various locations. As specialized
bacteria move in to break down the oily compounds, they will
consume oxygen, potentially adding to the dead zone in the Gulf of
If this were an earthquake, I would be reporting on damage
assessments and offering hope for a renewed community. If this were
an oil spill from a ship, I would be talking about worse-case
scenarios and long-term effects. But, frankly, it is hard to know
what to say when the spill goes on and on with no certainty at
To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to
BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.
Official sources of information:
Horizon Unified Command
NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration
Fishery Closure Information
EPA Response to BP Oil
Other valuable links can be found on a website for Gulf of Mexico
Sea Grant Programs
Last, but not least, I am learning a good deal from bloggers who
are part of the UC Davis
Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They are working in the Gulf and
providing an insider’s view about their work with affected
Pelicans fly past a nest of eggs on
an island off the the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. The island,
home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, is being impacted by oil
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert
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