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The Coast Is Clear...Or Is It?

Sept. 16, 2010
SHSU Media Contact: Amy Barnett

Jeffrey Wozniak, a research fellow with the Texas Research Institute for Environmental Studies, says previous oil spills can serve as an example for future implications of the BP spill.

The pictures are not coming across your TV screen as often as they once did. News networks are finding other things to talk about.

After all, more than four months have passed since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers and subsequently spilling an estimated 207 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The well has been capped, and federal investigators assure us the oil is almost gone.

“I think the media and the government are quick to say ‘the oil is gone,’” said Jeffrey Wozniak, research fellow with the Texas Research Institute for Environmental Studies.

“Federal and industry researchers say they have their skimmers out there and they can’t see anything with their aerial surveys. You might not see it in the open waters of the gulf or on the beaches, but it is in the wetlands, and if you move the sand on the beach, there can be sub-surface oil still there.”

Wozniak said without a doubt there is still oil in the Gulf of Mexico; the question is how much?

“We had a unique situation where they were injecting dispersants at depths right at the well head where the oil was flowing out. So we had 5,000 feet for that oil to begin to disperse and break into smaller particles.

“How much of that oil got to the surface?” he said.

That question is proving hard to answer. Some researchers reported seeing oil in mid-level waters, suspended in the water column. Others reported seeing no oil at all.

Wozniak said the discrepancy is likely due to the dynamic currents of the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s deep, cold and dark down there,” said Wozniak, “even with surface assessments, it’s just a lot of space to cover.”

While in the months to come, the federal government and industry officials hope to determine what oil remains, how to remove it and the risk of future spills, environmentalists know the questions they have may take decades to answer.

“The average person watching CNN sees the picture of the pelican covered in oil and thinks, ‘Oh that’s bad,’ and it is really bad. Then they hear reports that the oil is gone and there’s such a disconnect between those two reports,” said Wozniak, “there’s so much in the middle of these two endpoints, so much that happens to these ecosystems that we don’t see.”

There are short-term implications environmentalists fear may turn into long-term ecological disasters.

Take the Atlantic bluefin tuna. The western population of the 700-pound fish breeds in the Gulf of Mexico; its breeding season overlapped with the April 20 oil spill.

“They spawn in the upper portion of the water column. Their newly fertilized eggs have a droplet of oil in them that gives them buoyancy that causes them to float to the surface. We have no idea how the use of dispersants might affect those larvae,” said Wozniak.

In fact, the timing of the oil spill will likely prove hazardous for many of the ocean species, since springtime is a time of renewal.

The Gulf of Mexico is also an important nursery ground for the larval forms of yellowfin tuna, swordfish and shrimp.

“The shrimp that were there and reproducing at the time of the spill, that whole group of next year’s young may have all been lost. You will still have the older age classes and juveniles but we will have a gap when this year’s age class gets to sexual maturity,” said Wozniak.

“And the cold water corals and sponges- we don’t know what impact the oil has had on them.”

What environmentalists do know is that a look back in history to 1979 may at least show us what we can expect short-term.

That is when Ixtoc I, an exploratory oil well in the Bay of Campeche, suffered a blowout, resulting in one of the largest oil spills in history.

Reports show Ixtoc spewed 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico compared to the 207 million released by Deepwater Horizon.

It is the easiest oil spill to compare to Deepwater Horizon, since each took place in the Gulf of Mexico and dealt with similar ecological structures and climates.

The oil from Ixtoc was blamed for eliminating large populations of littoral crab on the beaches that were contaminated. The ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrat) were almost totally wiped out, and nine months after the spill, crab populations along the coast were reduced to just a few percent of normal.

As the oil from Ixtoc made its way to shore it also threatened one of the few nesting sites for Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Thousands were airlifted out of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to be saved.

A similar situation happened 10 days after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Biologists found 156 of the endangered species dead, presumably as a result of oil contamination.

Biologists with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries rescued hundreds more from Grand Isle, La., a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news is Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles did return to The Bay of Campeche, and five years after Ixtoc, biologists reported the number of crabs on Mexican beaches was “back to normal.”

Many short-term answers can be found in Ixtoc, but Wozniak said we would have more answers to long-term questions about the effects of oil on these ecosystems, if scientists would have continued their research years after Ixtoc. But for the most part, when the oil was gone, so were scientists.

One thing Ixtoc cannot answer is the effects of dispersants on marine organisms.

Dispersants weren’t used in the U.S. area of the 1979 spill because of the dispersants’ inability to breakdown weathered oil. And studies surrounding the effects of dispersants near the Bay of Campeche were halted soon after the oil was gone because researchers ran out of funding.

So scientists can’t say for sure what kind of damage a mixture of dispersants and oil can do to marine organisms.

The bigger question for the Deepwater Horizon spill is whether or not the dispersants used were too toxic?

“The EPA said ‘use a less toxic dispersant,’” said Wozniak, “we’re just going to have to see what happens and learn from it, and if it happens again, apply what we know.”

Scientists are also taking a wait-and-see approach with Louisiana’s already-eroding marshes. Texas had two months to prepare for the oil that spilled from Ixtoc as it made its way up the gulf. Once it got there, it didn’t stay long; tropical storms are credited for coming onshore and taking the oil away.

Now scientist can only watch for the effects of the oil from Deepwater Horizon on Louisiana’s wetlands, which had already been left tattered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and decades of human manipulation.

Scientists believe the main thing they can learn from Ixtoc is to not make the same mistakes now that were made then.

Rather than halting research when the oil is no longer visible, Wozniak said funding must be provided to continue follow-up studies. And he said practices must be put into place to protect the ecosystems rather than allowing oil to spew and cause contamination for months.

“It took them months to build a cap to put on it (the well). There should be a list of parts ready to go in these types of situations.”

After all, the Gulf of Mexico isn’t as healthy as it was 30 years ago.

“These ecosystems can take some hits. They can take pressures that humans put on them, but if we push too hard they are going to break,” said Wozniak. “Is it going to take a breaking point for us to open our eyes? We keep seeing big storms and spills like this but it is still not quite enough to make us realize that we are nearing what could be a major ecological tipping point.”



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