August 20, 2010

Gulf spill not a big deal?

75 percent of it gone?

That's not what Dan Cristol from the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary wrote last week in the Virginia Gazette:
Microbes don’t break oil down when it’s at great depth, or if conditions aren’t ideal. Often it breaks down incompletely, into other toxic substances. Dispersed oil can no longer be detected, but has not left the food chain and will continue to circulate in the bodies of animals as they eat one another. Oil that has left the Gulf or is lying on the bottom is not gone. And even if 50% or 25% were gone, that’s still millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf remaining to poison seafood and wildlife.

The comparisons of numbers of dead animals, particularly birds, is deceptive. Because the Gulf spill occurred far offshore, at great depth, most of the dead whales and tuna and birds will never wash up onshore as they did after the nearshore Exxon Valdez spill. Further, birds don’t nest in vast, dense colonies on the shores of the Gulf as they do in the Arctic, so the immediate impact is smaller. However, all of our neotropical migrant birds will travel to the Gulf this autumn and attempt a crossing to the Caribbean or Central America. Being fouled with tarballs, failing to find safe roosts in devastated marsh habitat, or eating oil-laden crabs before setting out on the journey will doom them. The people that I have spoken to who are actually monitoring habitat and birds in the Gulf all say something like “It’s far worse than you could ever imagine” when I ask them about what they are finding. They didn’t get the memo that all the oil has magically disappeared.

Why are we being fed this obvious deception? Everyone wants to feel better now that the well may be plugged. Probably, industry and government spin doctors want to prepare the public for a rapid return to eating Gulf seafood (which now contains some of that missing oil), drilling deep wells and energy exploration far off the Atlantic Coast. Ecological studies take a long time, as does vetting of data. Don’t believe anything you hear from scientists until their data have been through the peer-review process, which takes months. The ecological impacts of all that devastation offshore will be felt onshore eventually, it's not time to celebrate yet.