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THE GULF

In gulf oil spill's long reach, ecological damage could last decades

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

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By Joel Achenbach and David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Snorkeling along a coral reef near Veracruz, Mexico, in 2002, Texas biologist Wes Tunnell spotted what looked like a ledge of rock covered in sand, shells, algae and hermit crabs. He knew, from years of research at the reef, that it probably wasn't a rock at all. He stabbed it with his diving knife. His blade pulled up gunk.

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"Sure enough, it was tar from the Ixtoc spill," Tunnell said.

Twenty-three years earlier, in 1979, an oil well named Ixtoc I had a blowout in 150 feet of water in the southern Gulf of Mexico. The Mexican national oil company Pemex tried to kill the well with drilling mud, and then with steel and lead balls dropped into the wellbore. It tried to contain the oil with a cap nicknamed The Sombrero. Finally, after 290 days, a relief well plugged the hole with cement and the spill came to an end -- but only after polluting the gulf with 138 million gallons of crude.

That remains the worst accidental oil spill in history -- but the Deepwater Horizon blowout off the Louisiana coast is rapidly gaining on it.

The spill has now been partially contained with the cap that BP engineers lowered onto the mile-deep geyser Thursday night. That means roughly a quarter to half of the flow is being piped to a surface ship, the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Saturday. BP hopes to improve the rate captured in coming days. If official government estimates are correct, 23 million to 47 million gallons of oil have spewed so far.

Ecosystems can survive and eventually recover from very large oil spills, even ones that are Ixtoc-sized. In most spills, the volatile compounds evaporate. The sun breaks down others. Some compounds are dissolved in water. Microbes consume the simpler, "straight chain" hydrocarbons -- and the warmer it is, the more they eat. The gulf spill has climate in its favor. Scientists agree: Horrible as the spill may be, it's not going to turn the Gulf of Mexico into another Dead Sea.

But neither is this ecological crisis going to be over anytime soon. The spill will have ripple effects far into the future, scientists warn.

"This spill will be lasting for years if not decades," said Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation.

Some of the immediate effects of a spill are obvious -- witness the gut-wrenching images of soaked and suffocating seabirds in the gulf. But some types of ecological damage are hard to measure and can take years to document. Many of the creatures that die will sink to the bottom, making mortality estimates difficult. Damage to the reproduction rate of sea turtles may take years to play out.

The Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons killed as many as 700,000 sea birds and 5,000 sea otters initially, but even 21 years later, populations of sea otters in areas of Prince William Sound haven't recovered. The Pacific herring population collapsed after the spill for reasons that remain in dispute among scientists. Two intensely studied pods of killer whales in the sound suffered heavy losses in the spill and have struggled since. One of the two pods has no more reproductive females. It is doomed to extinction.

And the oil?

"It's still sitting there," said Stan Rice, program manager for habitat studies at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Auke Bay Fisheries Lab. "It's still liquid, you can still smell it and touch it."


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