Environmental toll

Scientists watch for environmental effects of Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Workers secure containment booms that will be deployed to protect delicate ecosystems from oil spilling from a destroyed rig in the Gulf.
Workers secure containment booms that will be deployed to protect delicate ecosystems from oil spilling from a destroyed rig in the Gulf. (John Fitzhugh/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010

The cord-grass marshes of south Louisiana are nurseries for baby shrimp, stalking grounds for blue crabs, and barriers that slow down waves before they bite off more of the mainland. On Friday, they were becoming defenseless sponges for sticky, dark oil.

The locals said the foul-smelling mass had the goopy look of chocolate mousse. The scientists said the enormous slick had the potential to bring environmental ruin to this treasured coastline.

The oil is spilling out of the seafloor at 5,000 barrels a day -- the equivalent of 210,000 gallons -- maybe much more, from a well about 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, and it could soon eclipse the volume of the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. That disaster spilled oil onto rocky Alaskan beaches, but it is at least possible to wash oil off a rock. In the Gulf, the oil is floating into wetlands that could hold on to its toxins for years.

And, scientists said, the spill's damage could be magnified by its awful timing.

Among the animals that live along the Gulf Coast, this is the time for hatching and rearing: Species as diverse as pelicans, shrimp and alligators are all reproducing, or preparing to. That could bring sensitive young animals in contact with toxic oil or cause their parents to plunge into oily waters looking for food.

Already, rescuers from Delaware were using Dawn blue dish soap to clean the first bird found to be "oiled" in the disaster, the Associated Press reported. The bird, a young northern gannet, had been turned from white to black.

"I can't imagine we're not going to have some mass casualties" among these birds, said Michael Parr of the American Bird Conservancy. "It's got to be about the worst time right now" for an oil spill to hit.

One environmentalist said the scenario created "a potential mega-disaster." Along the Gulf, they were waiting for it with a dread usually devoted to hurricanes.

"The magnitude and the potential for ecological damage is probably more great than anything we've ever seen in the Gulf of Mexico," said Nancy Rabalais, a scientist who heads the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, a research center in Cocodrie, La. "Once it hits the shoreline, it'll get into everything."

The oil has been flowing since April 22, when a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank 50 miles out in the Gulf.

By late Friday, federal officials estimated that the slick had reached land in Louisiana's isolated southeast corner and was being pushed ashore by strong winds.

It had already surrounded some of the Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana, where thousands of brown pelicans are roosting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the islands, has protected them with a ring of floating booms.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company