Even if the oil is topped, the worst may be yet to come

Published 2:22 pm Friday, July 16, 2010

Even if the cap that BP is putting on its well that is spewing millions of gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico works, the worst effects from the spill probably are yet to come.

A clue as to what those effects may include are hinted at in scientific research now taking place, and some that was done before the spill occurred.

An Associated Press story released on Wednesday reported that scientists already are finding the food web in the Gulf of Mexico is being altered by the massive spill, altered in ways that may take decades — decades without more damage — to be reversed.

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Among the alterations being noted is the destruction of pyrosome, a cucumber shaped colony of a type of plankton, a food favored by endangered sea turtles that swim in the gulf. Droplets of oil are being found inside the shells of young crabs, a major food of fish, turtles and shorebirds.

The death of the sea cucumbers, even without the spill, would put tremendous pressure on sea turtles. Add that die-off, caused by the spill, to the oiling of the turtles and their nesting grounds by the oil spill, and one has to wonder if these wonders from pre-history can survive.

Environmentalists are moving turtle eggs to the east coast of Florida in hopes that the species survive, but even if they do, will they swim again in the northern Gulf of Mexico?

As to the oil inside the turtle shells, what dangers are now in store for the fish that feed on them and those of us who fish for, catch and eat those fish? Oh, yes, we also eat the crabs. Is that, too, a danger? What pollutants that may cause various cancers and other diseases and “syndromes” such as autism are included in those droplets?

Already we are told not to eat some fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico because of the concentration of mercury in their flesh, a concentration caused by those fish eating other organisms that ingest the mercury, which comes form the coal that power plants along the coast burn to produce electricity. Pollutants apparently concentrate and become more dangerous to their consumers as they are absorbed at each level up in the food chain from the level below it. Man is at the top of that chain.

The oil will remain in the Gulf of Mexico and the food chain for years to come. Research into the damage done to Chesapeake Bay by various pollutants and sources of pollution makes that clear.

A scientist who is on the panel studying the oil spill is one of those who studied the damage to the Chesapeake and he also has done studies on the damage that oil exploration did to Coastal Louisiana even before the oil spill. Donald Boesch, a native of Louisiana who heads the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, is quoted in an AP article as saying the damage done even before the spill is “a catastrophe of massive and underappreciated proportions.”

What I fear is what may come in the future even beyond the continuing damage that the oil spill has done. Most politicians are notoriously shortsighted. The damage done to Louisiana’s wetlands by oil exploration, both onshore and offshore, is well documented — and often studiously ignored by politicians seeking to cause further damage for some short-term economic gain.

About the only time many Louisiana politicians bemoan the damage is after a hurricane such as Katrina emphasizes one of its consequences, and when they think they can get some money because of it as when Louisiana’s congressional delegation and other politicians sought to get some — ostensibly to reverse some of the damage —  after Katrina from federal funds collected from petroleum companies doing the exploration.

I fear that many of these politicians will now say, once the focus is off the suffering of the people and wildlife affected by the oil spill, the damage is so great it won’t matter if we do some more damage — for some other short-term economic gain.

The damage done to the wetlands, the Gulf of Mexico and the wildlife probably isn’t irreversible, if nature is allowed to do its job, but it will be irreversible if man keeps interfering. That is what may finally kill a culture and a way of life some families have lived and enjoyed for generations, and the chance that our children or grandchildren will have be able to enjoy living on or near the Gulf of Mexico the way we have.