It has been two years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the efforts of thousands of cleanup workers, the sand along the Gulf’s coastline is again white, the water a bright emerald green, and tourists can once more enjoy the seafood. But while the Gulf appears to be back to normal, it is in no way a healthy ecosystem.
In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon well exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. Oil began gushing into the Gulf at record speed. It would take five months before all the leaks were plugged. Some 1,100 miles of shoreline were contaminated, and 170 million gallons of oil escaped into the Gulf, killing thousands of birds, turtles and fish. Cleanup efforts included the use of almost two million gallons of a dispersant whose presence persists.
The Gulf of Mexico is a very valuable resource with a large supply of petroleum and productive fisheries. Many thousands of people depend on it for their livelihood. Yet unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico has long been a victim of neglect.
Contaminated water from the Mississippi persistently flows into the Gulf, creating a huge dead zone. Oil constantly seeps from natural oil leaks in the seafloor, the many wells and pipelines in the Gulf, and pollution from ships and boats. The protective barrier islands along Louisiana’s coast are also shrinking. And scientific research in the Gulf has been horribly underfunded.
Yet, since the tragic Deepwater accident, millions of research dollars are now being poured into the Gulf. Today, hundreds of scientists from universities, federal agencies and BP are gathering data to determine the damage to the area. Their findings are alarming.
The two million gallons of dispersant used to dissolve the oil are not degrading as they should. Zooplankton, the fish at the bottom of the food chain, are still contaminated by oil. Tar balls are still washing up on beaches, while thick tar mats are settling on the Gulf’s bottom. And dolphins have washed up onto beaches with signs of liver and lung diseases. Speckled trout, meanwhile, are absent from many spots where they once flourished.
Scientists are also finding fish with open sores, parasitic infections, lacerations and strange black streaks. However, it is difficult to support a direct link between environmental contamination and the sick fish since there is little data from before the accident, and deformities and disease in fish are common.
The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a memory, becoming news only on anniversaries or when new disasters occur. Yet although conditions may look good on the surface in the Gulf, the impact of the disaster will not be fully understood for a long time.