The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 Will Have Devastating Environmental Impacts

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Birds, fish and people have coexisted with oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for decades, but BP’s deadly oil slick threatens that fragile relationship.

[Click on the images for larger views]

by Glynn Wilson

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Hanging out on the beach at The Hangout Fest this past weekend, watching and listening to public officials struggle to get the word out to people to come on down and enjoy the coast since the oil spill had not made landfall here, yet, I could not help but wonder what effects the spill was having below the sea floor and in the wetlands of Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and beyond.

As a lover of shrimp and birds, I wondered what impacts the spill would have on wildlife refuges such as the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Baldwin County and the Gulf State Park wildlife refuge in Gulf Shores, places I’ve visited many times and grown to love.

To try to get some perspective on the potential problems, I rode over to the Gulf State Park Nature Center and talked to naturalist Kelly Reetz.

“We are going to see long-term impacts in the months and years to come,” she said about the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010. “Oil is toxic to the eggs of all manner of species. We will see inevitable effects on all the species exposed to this.”

Even if all the efforts of British Petroleum were to pay off and the Deepwater Horizon oil leaks were plugged and stopped today, and even if the growing oil slick of at least 2,300 square miles remained south and west of the beaches of Alabama and Florida with help from the winds and currents, there is no escaping the effects on the Gulf ecosystem — even if a centrifuge machine bankrolled by Kevin Costner is employed to separate the oil from water in the Gulf.


Reetz referenced the work of marine biologist Riki Ott, who has spent her life documenting the effects of oil on marine species in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound Alaska since that fateful spring in 1989.

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Glynn Wilson
BP’s oil slick mixed with chemical dispersants surround the barrier islands off the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, threatening marine life of all kinds.

The BP oil spill is similar yet different from that disaster, when a tanker full of thick, dark crude ran aground and spilled its contents directly into the sound.

In the Gulf, the crude is known as lighter and sweeter, so it won’t show up on the beaches and in the marshes as the black goo like it did in all the pictures from Alaska. And with the chemical dispersants being employed, BP’s oil is being turned orange, pink and purple as it makes its way to shore.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this in the Gulf,” Reetz said. “But some of the effects could be the same.”

Sea life across the food chain will suffer catastrophic damage that will endure for a decade or more, according to scientists such as Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia.

There are two main hazardous effects of the oil slick, she said. The oil itself can prove toxic to fish swimming in the sea, and the birds which feed on the fish, while vast amounts of oxygen is also being sucked from the water by microbes that eat oil. Dispersants used to fight the oil are also food for the microbes, speeding up the oxygen depletion.

“You have oily water that may be toxic to certain organisms and also the oxygen issue, so there are two problems here,” said Joye, who’s working with a group of scientists who discovered the underwater plumes in a recent boat expedition to the Gulf. “This can interrupt the food chain at the lowest level, and will trickle up and certainly impact organisms higher. Whales, dolphins and tuna all depend on lower depths to survive.”

Hypoxia, or oxygen depletion, is an environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms. Hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico is a concentration of dissolved oxygen less than two milligrams per liter, or 2 parts per million, the level at which fish and shrimp cannot survive.

Hypoxia occurs naturally in many of the world’s marine environments. Hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (no oxygen) waters have existed throughout geologic time, but their occurrence in shallow coastal and estuarine areas appears to be increasing as a result of human activities.

The largest “dead zone” in the U.S., and the second largest in the world, existed in the northern Gulf of Mexico adjacent to the Mississippi River on the Louisiana/Texas continental shelf even before the BP oil spill. It was as big as the state of Massachusetts. Scientists say the oil spill and the chemical dispersants used to combat the oil will make it much worse.

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Glynn Wilson
A brown pelican on Daphin Island oblivious to the perils of the growing oil slick just over the horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

Aquatic and marine dead zones are caused by an increase in chemical nutrients in the water, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, largely from chemical fertilizers draining into the river off of large corporate farms. Runoff of sewage and other urban land uses also contribute to the problem.

The oil spill and the efforts to clean it up will make matters much worse.

In addition, the oil spill threatens barrier reefs, already under stress from climate change due to global warming.

The oil will inevitably kill off endangered and threatened sea turtles, such as the Kemp’s Ridley and Loggerhead turtles, already at risk from bottom-dragging shrimping practices.

A number of fish species could be catastrophically effected, not least of which is the bluefin tuna, particularly vulnerable because they share deep Gulf territory with the oil spill, as do other valuable marine species, including royal red shrimp.

And the spill could threaten brown pelican populations, just now recovering from the ban on the use of the chemical DDT to kill mosquitoes that almost rendered them extinct, as well as other bird species.

It could take years or even decades for the ecosystem to recover.

To learn more about the effects of the oil in Alaska, Riki Ott has written two books on the subject. Not One Drop – Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, illustrates in stirring fashion the oil industry’s 20-year trail of pollution and deception that lead to the tragic 1989 spill and delves deep into the disruption to the fishing community for the next 10 years.

Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill exposes oil as a human and environmental health hazard, based on stories of key witnesses and participants in the environmental tragedy that struck Prince William Sound in 1989.

You can also watch the film based on that work, Black Wave: The legacy of the Exxon Valdez.

Here’s a clip.

Black Wave – The legacy of the Exxon Valdez (Teaser EN) from Macumba on Vimeo.

Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, marine biologist Riki Ott and the fishers in the town of Cordova, Alaska remind us that the biggest environmental catastrophe in North American history (until the BP oil spill of 2010) is still with us.

“Over time, its consequences have become all the more apparent and painful,” she says. “The spill has profoundly altered the lives of tens of thousands of people, reducing them to poverty and despair.”

Ott is also involved in a movement to abolish corporate personhood.

“Human rights are being trumped by corporate rights and privilege,” she says. “This democracy crisis lies at the heart of the climate crisis, economic meltdown, campaign finance abuse, globalization, and other societal ills that undermine our sovereign self-governance. It’s time to make human rights count more than corporate profit.”

Find out more at RikiOtt.Com.

Auburn University has installed an air and water monitoring system right next to the Gulf State Park fishing pier in Gulf Shores. So far, they have not returned phone calls or e-mail enquiring about the program.

© 2010, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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