Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill: six months later - never forget

It is now six months since the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico erupted into one of the greatest oil spill disasters of all time. Many news outlets and conservation organizations are taking a status check at this half-year mark, to see where the environment stands, what has happened, and what needs to be done both now and in the future.

But for many of us, we would like to sweep it all under the rug. The Gulf oil spill competed with the economy and politics for our attention a lot longer than many other news cycles, and with many of those other issues still remaining, most people just don't have the stomach for it anymore. It's human nature and I understand that; call it a defense mechanism, a means to cope by emotionally and intellectually moving on.

And it would be such a mistake to do so.

The long-term effects of this spill must not only be studied by scientific research organizations, but the results of those studies and their implications must be proactively distributed to the decision makers and the general populace. In other words, we must continue to have our nose rubbed in it. The Gulf marine ecology has been altered - subtly or radically. And by remembering that the environmental and economic effects of this spill will be with us for years if not decades, it could be the seminal event that finally signals a shift in our attitudes towards fossil fuels.

If there could have been any kind of silver lining to this dark petroleum cloud, it would have been that alternative energy sources would have received the support and backing they needed to push those technologies forward, making their use more effective, efficient, and affordable. But with the U.S. government's decision to lift the moratorium on the deep water drilling, there is a sense of returning to business as usual, albeit with a few more safeguards in place - but a critical, opportune moment may be passing.

So, pay attention to those organizations that are still studying, still observing the impact of wildlife, analyzing the impact on human health - from direct exposure to the oil or more indirectly, through the food chain. Lend them your ears and your support. Here are a few:

Using the Law
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) continues on the legal front with lawsuits to have the government check on tuna populations that were breeding in the Gulf at the time of the spill.
CBD also supported the Sea Turtle Restoration Project in their successful efforts to stop the burning of surface oil as it was killing sea turtles, burning them alive. And they continue to storm the gates of Washington to insure that environmental protection laws are rightfully enforced.

Studying Deep Water Impacts
Greenpeace has a research vessel and deep water submersible in the Gulf where they are conducting studies on the impact of the spill on deep water corals. A portion of the oil was thought to have settled to the bottom. If so, Greenpeace wants to determine what effect it may be having on deep water coral communities. Do entire reef communities of fish and crustaceans move on? And if so, how does that impact other marine communities beset by oil spill refugees?

Oil-Eating Microbes

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has recently completed a study of the Gulf oil spill, verifying that there was a large oil plume that floated 3,000 feet below the surface. But they also determined that much of that plume was consumed by oil-eating microbes; more so than anticipated because of a high population of bacteria that has adapted to Gulf conditions. The researchers also found that the bacteria consumed less oxygen than expected, thereby diminishing the possibility of oxygen-free dead zones. All of which would be at least a relief, if not encouraging.

But the researchers still had plenty of questions and concerns as to what long-term effects all of this microbial activity could have on the Gulf ecosystem. Talking with Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald, the PBS News Hour reported, "
He cautions that many questions remain unanswered -- such as what has happened to the methane released into the water along with the oil, what percentage of the total oil released ended up in this deep-sea plume, and the environmental effects of changing the deep-sea microbial community."

Again, it's human nature to want to turn back the clock, to somehow take us back to when the waters were clear of oil, jobs were plentiful, and homes and credit were easily available. But if we succumb to that impulse, we are only setting up ourselves or the next generation for a repeat performance of what happened six months ago.

Never forget.

Read a six-month recap from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Read about Greenpeace's
deep water coral research.
Read about Woods Hole's microbial research.

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