Despite dire predictions that oil spills will destroy the earth's fragile coastal areas, a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that, over the long term, they can survive.
The federally funded study concedes that it cannot prove nature will "recover its losses in all cases given the required amount of time."
But it asserts that in two cases studied last year - the Cape Hatteras area off the coast of North Carolina and the northern New Jersey coast - "regional wildlife and economy survived with minimal difficulty" the effects of spills from oil tankers sunk by German submarines in 1942.
In the first six months of that year, "when the Germans drove for the jugular of the American mainland," tankers sunk by U-boats dumped up to 145 million gallons of oil within 50 miles of the U.S. Atlantic coast, the study said.
That amount is the equivalent of the cargo of 20 Argo Merchants, the report noted. The tanker Argo Merchant went aground off Massachusetts in December and spilled more taan 7 million gallons of oil, all of which was blown out to sea.
The $19,800 MIT study, completed in January, was commissioned by the National Sea Grant Program, which funds university studies of marine resources and is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Commerce Department.
"I can't think of any study that examines the after-effects of oil spills over a longer period of time," said David B. Duane, a sea grant program official.
The study is filled with qualifications. Its director, Dean A. Horn of MIT's sea grant program, said its "findings indicate that the ecology of the coastal regions survived (the) wartime devastation, though there is no definite evidence that long-term or permanent damage did not occur."
Duane, however, pointed out that the researchers uncovered "no evidence that the habitat has been lost."
Kenneth Biglane, the Environmental Protection Agency's oil spill expert, said he had not seen the MIT report, but he stressed that EPA is undertaking extensive research because "oil uncontrolled in the environment, can have long-term, devastating effect on living things."
Biglane cited three cases that he said have had or will have long-term impact: Falmouth, Mass., is still feeling the effects of a 1969 barge spill of diesel fuel; a 1974 oil spill in the Strait of Magellan off the southern coast of Chile will be a "chronic source of pollution for a long time," and a spill off Baja California about 15 years ago "virtually wiped out all marine life and only gradually was it re-established," Biglane said.
The MIT study of oil spills 35 years ago focused on Ocracoke Island, N.C., which was soaked by more than 160,000 barrels of oil and gasoline, and northern New Jersey coastal waters, which were smeared by 264,000 barrels. A barrel is 42 gallons.
The Hatteras area could have been hit harder, the report notes. There were 14 oil spills, but currents and wind drove off all but three slicks.
However, at Ocracoke, which is part of the Outer Banks archipelago south of Cape Hatteras, "there was so much sticky oil that it was difficult to walk on the beach," according to an eyewitness cited in the report.
It said that Pamlico Sound, the area between the island chain and the North Carolina coast, was protected from the oil by the islands so that fisheries on the ocean side of the islands were the only ones vulnerable.
Newspapers at the time "indicate that local fishing was as good as ever," the report said, adding gingerly that "reports of poor fishing might have been commercial suicide for the small towns of the area which depend so heavily on the influx of tourists for pleasure fishing."
Wildlife statistics were not available, the MIT team said. People who lived there indicated that incidents of oiled birds on the beaches " were minor," but the study noted that diving birds that lived on the ocean side of the Outer Banks "would have been most greatly affected."
"As before, newspapers reported that duck hunting was better than ever," the study said. "Again, these reports should be viewed skeptically since statements to the contrary could have seriously affected the area's economy."
In the Asbury Park-Belmar beach area of New Jersey, "conditions were severe enough to require the combined efforts of seaside municipalities," the report said.
Workers tried washing the oil back into the ocean with fire hoses; they burned some of it, and they buried the rest. The MIT report said the massive burial effort required the digging of 500-by-320-foot holes 10 feet deep in the sand and carting the slag-like deposits to them with heavy machinery.
The buried oil resurfaced over the next few summers because of storms, one oldtimer told the MIT team.
"Every interview without exception revealed that there had been no visible sign of fish mortality," the study said, adding that a series of 42 Life magazine photographs showed no dead birds or fish on the beaches. "It is known at this time that no species was exterminated as a result of those spills," the report concluded.