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Optimism on Oil Spill Effects Contrasted by Discovery of Giant Oil Plume on Seafloor

As annoying as I find the traditional media profiles of the struggling rich who have to give up their second yacht or country estate, I’m starting to find this new entry in the boring counter-intuitive genre just as bad:

Marsh grasses matted by oil are still a common sight on the gulf coast here, but so are green shoots springing up beneath them.

In nearby bird colonies, carcasses are still being discovered, but they number in the thousands, not the tens of thousands that have died in other oil spills.

And at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the zone of severely oxygen-depleted water that forms every summer has reappeared, but its size does not seem to have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill […]

…as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring.

Aside from the downplaying of “only” thousands of dead birds, or the smaller-than-expected dead zone of water at the mouth of the Mississippi, this analysis mentions but largely sidesteps the new revelations about giant undersea plumes of oil, including a matte finish on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico:

Scientists conducting research in the Gulf have found a thick layer of oily sediment on the ocean floor stretching for miles.

“We have to [chemically] fingerprint it and link it to the Deepwater Horizon,” Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia, told NPR. “But the sheer coverage here is leading us all to come to the conclusion that it has to be sedimented oil from the oil spill, because it’s all over the place.”

According to the research, dispersants (which were used in such high numbers precisely to keep away the PR disaster of oil crashing onto the shore in big numbers) play a role in forcing oil to the seafloor and sticking in the sediment. Oil like this has been found as far as 70 miles from the Deepwater Horizon rig.

We just have no idea of the long-lasting effect of this much oil on the seafloor. It could enter into the bloodstream of Gulf wildlife and turn it toxic. We don’t know if oxygen levels could drop throughout the Gulf due to all the oil-eating bacteria in the water. We don’t know if the marsh grasses will eventually be affected by the change in ecology. We’re kind of in uncharted territory on a host of fronts. And we know the oil still exists, unlike the “disappearing scenario” put forward initially by NOAA. Let’s not breathe sighs of relief just yet.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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