Deep Trouble in the Gulf of Mexico 'A Disaster of Epic Proportions'
The oil spill from the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico could turn into the biggest environmental catastrophe in US history. It could take months to stop the oil flow, and the damage to the local economy and wildlife could be huge. The accident is likely to hamper US President Barack Obama's plans to extend offshore drilling.
Orange booms made of resilient rubber, filling with floating foam, serve as the front line in the battle against the oil. Workers are loading meter after meter of the booms from the pier at Bud's Boat Rental onto Miss Katherine, a supply ship that normally carries crews and materials to the oil rigs.
Captain Leonard Murrel glances sullenly over at his men and wrinkles his nose. A brisk ocean breeze is laden with the heavy odor of crude oil. "It's really a huge mess out there," says the weather-beaten American, who has been working in the coastal town of Venice on the southeastern tip of the Mississippi Delta for the last 10 years. "I've never seen anything like it before."
Murrel is about to take off again to bring the oil barriers out to the "South Path," one of the channels of the Mississippi leading into the Gulf of Mexico at the outer end of the river delta. From there, workers will load the booms onto smaller ships, which will bring them out to the waters off the coast of Louisiana.
The muscular sailors work slowly and silently, knowing that they have to keep up their strength for a battle that could last a long time.
State of Emergency
The US states along the Gulf are fighting an oil slick that could turn out to be the biggest environmental catastrophe in American history. After the explosion and subsequent sinking, on April 22, of the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig leased by the British oil company BP, about 800,000 liters (211,000 gallons) a day of crude oil have been gushing into the waters off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Last Thursday evening, earlier than expected, the oil slick reached the Mississippi delta only a few miles from Venice. The governor had already declared a state of emergency, after oil giant BP had admitted that it could no longer stop the oil spill on its own.
"We don't care where the solution comes from," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer of exploration and production. The most important thing, according to Suttles, is for someone to quickly come up with new suggestions on how to cap a gushing underwater oil well. Some experts have proposed feeding oil-dispersing chemicals directly to the three oil leaks at a depth of about 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) -- a completely new and not yet approved method.
Who is responsible for the accident, which also killed 11 oil workers? What exactly is the threat to the swamps and salt marshes along the lower course of the Mississippi, considered among the most valuable coastal ecosystems in the United States? And finally, what will be the political fallout for US President Barack Obama?
Drowning in the Oil Slick
It was only in late March that the president had announced the government's intention to open up new offshore areas off the northern coast of Alaska, in the Atlantic and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling. The plans have now been put on ice until the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have been determined. The government also faces serious questions about why it didn't react to the crisis more quickly and left it up to BP to fight the oil spill for so long.
For the region along the Gulf of Mexico, the sinking of the oil rig will undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences. The effects will likely be felt by the entire country. The coastal waters are among the most productive fishing grounds on Earth, and a large share of fish and shellfish produced in the United States comes from the region. The oyster harvest was originally scheduled to begin last Saturday, and the shrimp season was supposed to open in mid-May. Dozens of shrimp boats are sitting idle in the harbor at Venice.
"You probably get the world's best fish, oysters and shrimp here," says Roy Mareno, the owner of Bud's Boat Rental. "When the oil gets here, all that will be over for a while." An entire sector of the economy threatens to drown in the oil slick.
"The waters are extremely important as a breeding ground for fish and many other sea animals," says Ken Litzenberg of the local branch of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He and his coworkers spent much of last week trying to jockey the oil barriers into place in the most seriously threatened areas.
Dependent on the Swamps
About 95 percent of the US fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico is dependent on the swamps and channels of the Mississippi delta. The shallow waters, their shimmering surface constantly interrupted by small islands and sand bars, are the breeding grounds for hundreds of species of fish and shellfish. And the oil spill couldn't have happened at a worse time for the local fauna. The breeding season of the majestic brown pelican is just beginning on Breton Island, one of Louisiana's barrier islands. Wading birds such as the black skimmer and the least tern live there, and soon loggerhead turtles will crawl up onto the oil-covered beaches to lay their eggs.
"This here is one of the most important coastal habitats in the United States," says Wes Tunnell, a biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas. "When the oil gets into the swamps, it kills off the vegetation first, and then the animals die."
While it is relatively easy to gather the rubbery clumps of oil on beaches, it is almost impossible, says Tunnell, to clean up shorelines in the intricately branched channels of the delta. It could take up to 10 years for the sensitive ecosystem to regenerate itself.
The wetlands also have another important function: They protect the entire region against the consequences of hurricanes. Like natural breakwaters, the vegetation slows down storm surges that build up during hurricanes. But if the oil destroys the grasses and shrubs, there will be nothing left to stop the water.
- Part 1: 'A Disaster of Epic Proportions'
- Part 2: Lawsuits Already Being Filed