BP’s latest attempts to cut off the undersea well pumping millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico has failed, writes The New York Times. BP engineers recently tried a “top kill” technique, which pumps heavy mud into the well from above to stop the flow of oil. Previously, BP tried to repair a blowout preventer using submarine robots. The company then tried to cap the well with a containment dome. Work on two relief wells is ongoing, but will not be completed by August. Government officials and engineers are confident the relief wells, which will pump mud and cement diagonally into the base of well and seal it from within, will ultimately stop the flow of oil. However, this means hundreds of thousands of gallons will continue to funnel into the Gulf until then, destroying ecosystems in the process.
The oil spill, now estimated to be the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, will have enormous impacts on local and regional ecosystems. The Guardian (UK) says the true impact on surrounding ecosystems could take months or years to determine. “Experts say the unprecedented depth of the spill, combined with the use of chemicals that broke the oil down before it reached the surface, pose an unknown threat.”
Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the crisis so far, is now seeing pollution on 100 miles of its 400-mile coastline. “State officials have reported sheets of oil soiling wetlands and seeping into marine and bird nurseries, leaving a stain of sticky crude on cane that binds the marshes together.” Wildlife refuges now demonstrate “no life.” Officials report that at least 491 birds, 227 turtles, and 27 mammals, including dolphins, have been found dead along the coast so far.
Bloomberg Businessweek says massive undersea oil patches are creating oxygen-depleting “dead zones” within the ocean as well. Microbes feed on oil seeping from the sea bed. As a result, “oil-gorged microbes” are expected to rapidly grow, consuming all oceanic oxygen. Marine biologists also expect oil’s direct damage to slowly move up the food chain. Oil will kill off smaller organisms like plankton, fish larvae, and shrimp. Larger species of fish depend on these as primary food sources. Rick Steiner, a marine biologist, told Bloomberg Businessweek, “this much oil in a productive marine environment will cause substantial environmental damage.” Researchers have also found two underwater plumes of oil or oil derivatives stretching for miles. The plumes may be made up of a mix of oil, water, solvents, and detergents that form when chemical dispersants separate out crude oil into its composite layers.
Coastal marshlands, key habitats for shore-based species and breeding grounds for sea life, may take years to recover from the toxic effects of crude oil. There are no good options for dealing with the toxic effects of crude, but The Christan Science Monitor says controlled burns may be the least awful option. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says hurricane Rita drove roughly 100 to 200 barrels of the oil into an adjacent marsh. “Burning the marsh removed between 80 and 90 percent of the oil. Much of the rest was soaked up later with nets or special oil-absorbent material.” Other options include cutting marsh grasses (but leaving roots intact), and fertilizing shore-line-based microbial growth through nitrogen and phosphorous (which unfortunately creates algae blooms and those “dead zones.”)
Any clean-up and restoration work must be done with care. The New York Times writes that local government officials, and conservation and citizen groups have been concerned with the speed and quality of clean-up activities they’ve seen so far. “Environmentalists accuse workers of running roughshod over wildlife and delicate grasses. Conversely, state and local officials are worried that the crews are not doing enough, fast enough. And most agree that the effort has been wildly uneven.”
Image credit: Associated Press