The stains of industry
While BP has been brought to court for the disaster, the damage to the local ecosystem caused by the spill, though far reaching, is far from being fully assessed. Illustration by Jesse Karger
Nearly three years ago the BP oil rig exploded, unleashing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf and wreaking havoc upon the wetlands and marine life.
On Feb. 25, the trial against the BP oil company has begun for violation of the "Clean Water Act," which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency website, is a law meant to regulate pollutant discharges and to insure clean water supply.
According to a press release, BP, as well as Transocean, the corporation that owned the oil rig, are both facing civil charges for damages resulting from the oil spill.
Transocean is reportedly attempting to deflect part of the blame onto BP by claiming the oil spill could have stopped two months earlier had BP not misled government officials about the magnitude of the spill, thereby hindering efforts to repair the leak.
Although the trial has begun, and several lawsuits have been settled in regards to the BP oil spill, the full extent of the damages caused by the spill has not been fully assessed.
"Assessing the real and effective impact of the oil on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is going to be exceedingly difficult, at best," said Dr. Roldan Valverde, associate professor of biology. "The main reason is that there is relatively little information about the status of the Gulf before the spill. Going into the future, federal and state authorities should proactively and decidedly support research in the Gulf geared at establishing what conditions prevail so that future assessments can be conducted."
One of the many alarming environmental impacts of the oil spill is the danger to marine life. Several species of turtle, including the Kemp's Ridley, that inhabit the Gulf raise special concerns amongst biologists for the simple fact that the turtle species was considered to be endangered even before the oil spill.
"This [Kemp's Ridley] is the most critically endangered sea turtle species; even without the oil spill, all sea turtle populations in the Gulf continue to be threatened by other stressors (e.g., fisheries)," said Valverde.
Valverde went on to explain exactly how an oil spill could be exceedingly harmful to sea turtles.
"Sea turtles, like most other species, cannot tolerate direct exposure to oil. When immersed in it, they swallow the oil, which is lethal to them. In addition, the oil may be too thick in some areas, which prevents sea turtles, which are air breathers, to come up for air. Direct exposure to oil may also cause significant, possibly lethal, skin lesions," said Valverde.
Although the dangers to the sea turtle population in the Gulf are inevitable, it will be years before the extent of the damage to the species can be properly measured.
"Although some individual turtles were able to swim away from the incoming oil, more than likely younger individuals, such as small juveniles and hatchlings, were directly impacted. In the case of the Kemp's Ridley, it is likely that many young individuals were lethally impacted by the oil, which may slow down the recovery of the Rancho Nuevo population. This is an effect that we may not observe for many years, perhaps even decades, since sea turtles are slow growing species," said Valverde.
One thing to be optimistic about in regards to the environmental mess of the BP oil spill is that the Gulf has recovered from similar accidents in the past.
"The good news is that the Gulf has shown to be rather resilient," said Valverde. "An example of this is the recovery of the Gulf after the Ixtoc I oil spill of 1979, which dumped approximately 3,000,000 barrels into the western Gulf. But with over 3,500 oil and gas rigs in the northern Gulf (located mostly in Louisiana and Texas waters), we must remain vigilant and be prepared for another eventuality."
Whether the BP or the Transocean corporation is primarily responsible for oil spill, getting caught up in the legal technicalities will neither repair the current damages nor prevent future damages.
"The extent of the damage is something that the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, conducted by the Federal Government, will try to resolve," said Valverde. "What we get from the news is that BP and Transocean blame each other for the disaster. But it is clear to everyone that there was a disaster and that these companies both must face their responsibilities in such a regrettable event."
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