On April 20, 2010, the world witnessed an environmental catastrophe of monumental proportions as a BP oil rig experienced an explosion that sent it 5,000 feet below the surface, causing pipe leaks that are still spewing thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Multiple miles of shoreline have been affected and are enduring economic, environmental and public health consequences. Ultimately, the spill is the worst in history; some estimates place the BP disaster at 72 million gallons more devastating than 1989 Exxon Valdez incident. While area residents are undoubtedly suffering from a government mandated fishing halt as well as an almost dead stop in the tourism season, the creatures most affected are the Gulf’s indigenous marine plants and animals.
Already, dead birds and fish are washing up on the shores of Louisiana and even though the long term effects are still unknown, scientists are beginning to talk about possible extinction scenarios. Many already endangered species inhabit the Gulf and others use it as a vital breeding or feeding ground along their migration route. Sea turtles, whales and dolphins are of primary concern, but the Gulf is also home to the Bluefin Tuna and the brown pelican, two species on the verge of joining the endangered list.
While the EPA is leery of releasing any hard estimates as to long term effects, the immediate effects of oil washing up on shore are difficult to ignore. The oil clogs the breathing mechanisms of aquatic animals causing them suffocate, birds are unable to fly when they become oil-saturated and plants can no longer photosynthesize when covered in oil. Yet while these images are shocking, the long term effects may be even more so. For example, the Gulf is a primary breeding ground for shrimp. The shrimp mature in the marshlands and then migrate out into the open water and become food for larger animals. If, because of this disaster, there are no adult shrimp to migrate out, the whole ecosystem could be affected.
While scientists and concerned citizens are trying to figure out how to minimize the environmental effects, BP is playing down the severity of the damage by insisting that large underwater oil plumes do not exist, despite evidence provided by universities in Georgia, Florida and Mississippi. BP stands to pay billions of dollars in fines for the negligence, as the charges will likely be assessed on a per-gallon/per-day scale so it is in their best interest to deny the scope of the spill. Currently, the spill has affected 150 miles of shore and is costing BP up to $22 million a day. One attempt to stop the leaking has already failed and it remains to be seen if another so-called “top kill” effort will be more effective.
First Top Kill Effort Fails: Underwater Video
To make matters worse, hurricane season is starting in the Gulf region. A large hurricane would not only increase the risk of damages to the marshlands, but would likely move the oil farther out to sea, spreading the oil and its toxins to other species and ecosystems.
Frustrated with their inability to contain the spill, U.S. citizens have begun taking matters into their own hands by sending in human hair, nylons and other absorbent materials to the region in an effort to separate the oil from the sea. As oil is more easily absorbed from water than from the wetlands and a substantial solution to stopping the leaks potentially months away, absorption may be our best bet in saving the marshlands from complete destruction.