In the Macondo Prospect on April 20, 2010, high-pressure gas forced its way into the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig where it exploded. Eleven people were killed. From then, until it was announced as sealed on September 19, 2010, some 210 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico some 50 miles offshore from Louisiana. This was the largest accidental oil spill in history.
The spill threatened the beautiful white sand beaches from Biloxi Mississippi to much of Florida’s panhandle and included the swamplands of Louisiana and shores of Texas. For those of you familiar with the areas you may understand the plethora of wildlife and miles of condos threatened by this run-away spill. I say run-away since this was an ongoing spill much of spring and summer of 2010. There was even a camera with a live shot of the spill from 1600 meters down. A disaster-cam if you will. At one point the spill affected some 67,000 square miles; roughly the size of Oklahoma.
Skimmer ships, floating booms, controlled burns, and oil-eating bacteria were all employed to protect wetlands, beaches and estuaries from the spill. In some cases, individuals were deployed to shovel tainted sands into containers to be hauled off. In addition, attempts to stop the flow continued at the source of the leak. According to many eye witnesses, though, most of the actually spilled was handled with Corexit.
Corexit is oil dispersant which breaks oil down to smaller drops. This reduces the impact on the shore but impacts the aquatic life beneath the surface. Much of the dispersed oil binds with sand and settles on the ocean’s bottom. So using Corexit left the beaches in much better shape but it may have destroyed fisheries since all of the water from the surface to the bottom were polluted. This too is where aquatic life feeds.
By hiding the problem under the waves did we trade pretty beaches for yet more dead zones in the gulf? Dead zones are traditionally associated with nitrogen runoff from Midwestern farm belts. But dispersed oil droplets can be fatal to plankton that many larger animals depend on. This reverberates up the food chain.
Many would argue that BP has paid enough in fines and clean-up efforts while others would say that you can’t put a price on the environmental damage done.
So do oceans heal or are they permanently scarred? Are spills like this inevitable? Where is the balance between the benefits of oil and its problems?