What lies in the Gulf Coast's future after the oil spill?

Biloxi Sun-HeraldAugust 10, 2010 

Oil has stopped flowing, but the BP catastrophe is now ingrained in Gulf life.

Evidence and experience indicate environmental, psychological and economic impacts will linger. Nobody can say how bad they will be or how long oil will continue to come ashore. One positive outcome, scientists and environmentalists say, is an increased awareness of the Gulf's importance and the federal government's pledge of long-needed restoration.

The testimony of oil executives and others before federal panels indicates the disaster could have been prevented through vigilance by the regulatory Minerals Management Service and BP executives, who acknowledged months' old problems with the well's blowout preventer.

Hurricane-weary Coast residents, businesses, aquatic life, wildlife and the Gulf’s reputation as a tourist destination will suffer as a result.

Previous oil disasters show this one will linger, but not as long as some others. Oil remains in the environment in Alaska, site of the 1989 Valdez spill, and in West Falmouth, Mass,, from a spill four decades ago. However, those environments are less akin to the U.S. Gulf region than is the Gulf area oiled by the Ixtoc, Mexico, well blowout a little more than 31 years ago. For 10 months, 30,000 barrels of oil a day spewed into the Gulf, killing aquatic life.

The encouraging news is that fisheries appeared to recover within years rather than decades and few if any traces of the oil remain. Hurricanes helped.

“The environment is amazingly resilient, more so than most people understand,” deep-sea biologist Luis A. Soto, who has advanced degrees from Florida State University and the University of Miami, told McClatchy News. “To be honest, considering the magnitude of the spill, we thought the Ixtoc spill was going to have catastrophic effects for decades ... But within a couple of years, almost everything was close to 100 percent normal again.”

The final count on the Ixtoc catastrophe was an estimated 3.3 million barrels spilled, vs. 4.9 million barrels for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Weather systems

Two weather systems stirred up U.S. Gulf waters during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the first driving oil ashore and into the marshes and a second breaking up the oil.

Media accounts indicate Texas did a better job of protecting its marshes after Ixtoc than BP and government leaders have done in the Deepwater Horizon’s aftermath. Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, was more concerned about resuscitating tourism. He decried the bad publicity and even told the Sun Herald on May 2 that the media was “assuming” oil would come ashore in Mississippi when it might not.

Barbour has continued to downplay the oil’s impact on the Coast, with state agency heads following his lead. When oil finally rolled toward Mississippi shores more than two months into the disaster, BP and the state were ill-prepared to deal with it.

The psychological impact on a people still struggling to recover from the nation’s worst natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, can not be underestimated.

The livelihoods of thousands have been lost or diminished. BP is offering too little and taking too long to pay claims, residents have complained at public forums.

“For technological disasters, unlike natural disasters, we see long-term impacts to communities, families and individuals,” said sociologist Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama who has studied both the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill and Katrina. “What we found in Alaska was that communities tended to lose their social capital . . . Their trust in local institutions and state and federal institutions, and their social networks, tend to break down. People do not want to get together because everyone is angry and venting and people get tired.”

“People quit blaming God, usually after two weeks, for a natural disaster. They do come together with purpose and meaning to rebuild, so your social capital in a community grows after a natural disaster. But then after the technological disaster, your only means to have damages paid related to litigation. You have a principal responsible party.”

Contested disasters, he said, cause even more loss of trust and uncertainty, leading to “corrosive communities.” The resiliency Coast residents demonstrated after Katrina may help them overcome the oil disaster, too, he said, but this will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Questions about dispersant

Uncertainty looms over the Gulf, even though the well is capped. For the first time, dispersant was injected on the ocean floor to break up oil. The petroleum-based dispersant, Corexit 9500 in this case, is less toxic than oil. It breaks the oil into microscopic pieces eaten by microorganisms. But the manufacturer said it was not designed for repeated applications beneath the water’s surface.

The Environmental Protection Agency says dispersant breaks down over several days with traditional surface application. It does, however, contain hazardous substances. Individuals working with dispersant are directed to wear masks and keep it out of their eyes and off their skin.

The agency also has assured the public that, because dispersant has been used in unprecedented quantities and in a novel way, rigorous testing of air and water is being performed.

The verdict also is out on how people exposed to the oil will fare, especially cleanup workers who encountered concentrations of oil. After the Exxon Valdez spill, Alaska plaintiff’s attorney Dennis M. Mestas said, medical records were kept under lock and key.

“No one ever got to look at them,” he said, “but there were lots and lots and lots of sick people.” Mestas said Exxon Valdez was different, though, because workers sucked water from the sea to spray oil off rocks onshore. The seawater was contaminated with oil that aerosolized. The bunks where workers slept, he said, sounded like a tuberculosis ward because of all the coughing.

Health effects have lingered, residents say. Exxon denies it.

“The lid was on information completely. It was remarkable,” Mestas said, “Nobody really knew about all the sickess and nobody ever studied it. Even though federal law required the workers to be followed, it was never done. You tell me why.”

The Alaska fight

The workers, he said, were not given masks. Louisiana chemist Wilma Subra is familiar with what happened in Alaska. She and environmentalists in her state had to fight in court for protective gear for cleanup workers.

Even so, she said a few weeks ago, cleanup workers were heading into the Gulf without respirators. Subra said high winds and waves also aerosolize oil. Workers, she said, came home in the evenings complaining of headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, burning eyes and sore throats.

BP has been monitoring areas around the rig, she said, but not so much the expanses of Gulf where the small boats troll for oil.

“The workers have been extremely sick,” she said. “They’re scared to death to speak out because they’re scared to death they could lose their jobs. This is the only source of income they have.”

But cause and effect are hard to prove when human health suffers.

Damages are hard to measure with so much oil sunk and dispersed into microscopic particles. The effects will have to be studied over time. A battle of experts — those hired by BP vs. those bankrolled by personal injury lawyers — will ensue in court.

By refusing to measure the oil flow, and dispersing so much of what gushed out, BP has reduced its potential liability at the Gulf’s expense.

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