Gulf Oil Spill Cleaned…or Not

A year after one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history, the verdict is still out on how well the recovery is going for the Gulf Coast.  On the surface, the Gulf looks pretty much like it did the day before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 18, 2010.  But for weeks afterward, hundreds of liters of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a sticky, molasses-colored coating on sensitive marshlands, wildlife and anything else that got caught in its path.

Courtesy US Coast Guard

Naturally occurring, oil-eating microbes helped clean up after the spill, along with chemical dispersants used by BP.   But some scientists say the long-term effects of the oil spill are only hidden from view.

John Hocevar, a marine biologist with the environmental group Greenpeace, says most of the oil is still in the Gulf today.

“It’s in the water.  It’s on the sediment.  It’s on the sea floor.  A lot of it is washed up into the wetlands.  It is still there.  It is still being eaten by marine life today.”

Courtesy US Coast Guard

A diagram from the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows just how difficult assessing the actual damage from the oil spill can be.  In other words, they’re not just looking for tar balls on the beaches.  Tests are routinely performed on water columns throughout the Gulf.  Tissue samples are taken from dead animals (such as dolphins and turtles) to see if oil played a role in their deaths.  Scientists are also documenting the presence and diversity of vegetation, fish, plankton and shellfish, and looking for possible changes in the behavior of marine animals.

So far, the Gulf appears to be recovering better than expected.  In a recent survey on the health of the Gulf Coast, more than a dozen scientists gave it an average grade of 68 out of 100.  Before the spill, scientists rated the Gulf on average at 71.

The Gulf has suffered a myriad of environmental problems for decades from overfishing, marsh erosion and dead zones caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River.  It’s fair to say the oil spill didn’t help.

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