Thursday, August 05, 2010

Lingering Oil, Sea Turtles, and Transparency

As I mentioned in my earlier post on the NOAA report, even if the numbers in the report are accurate (and there is good reason to think they are not) the remaining oil still poses a significant threat to people and wildlife. Here are some possible long term effects, especially on sea turtles:
Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor who worked on the Exxon Valdez disaster, questioned the validity of the estimates in the report, explaining, "These are just what we call WAGs — wild- a-- guesses."

Even if the report's numbers were dead-on, Steiner said, that would not mean the oil spill disaster is over, as some pundits are claiming. The impact is likely to linger for a decade or more.

For instance, in the Exxon Valdez spill, four years passed before the herring population in Prince William Sound collapsed. The toxic contamination had apparently hurt the herrings' immune system.

"The coast is not clear," agreed Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. "Even if all the oil was gone tomorrow, the potential ecological consequences will be unfolding for days, weeks and years to come."

The effects on sea turtles, for instance, likely won't be known for seven years, because that's how long it will take before this year's hatchlings return to the gulf coast to lay their own eggs, he said.

Last month, scientists reported that they found near the spill site a massive die-off of pyrosomes — cucumber-shaped, gelatinous organisms that are a food source for endangered sea turtles. One scientist called it "just a mass eradication" of the creatures.

Meanwhile, droplets of oil turned up inside the shells of young crabs that are a mainstay in the diet of fish, turtles and shorebirds. The orange spots were detected in crabs across the northern Gulf Coast, from southwestern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

Harriet Perry of the University of Southern Mississippi said that in 42 years of studying crabs, she'd never seen anything like it. The crabs are a key species for the whole food chain, she said. "If we have a loss of blue crabs, we're looking at a loss of everything."
Drew Wheelan from the ABA suggests another possible spill casualty: a major fish kill in Fourchon, Louisiana.

Unfortunately initial media coverage of the NOAA report left the impression that the environmental disaster was over. Columbia Journalism Review lambastes The New York Times in particular for uncritically repeating claims that the oil has disappeared. Since the Deepwater Horizon first exploded, BP has shown no interest in either transparency or accurate reporting, government agencies have been too willing to repeat low-ball damage estimates and assist BP's obfuscation, and the media (with few exceptions) have not applied sufficient skepticism to the information coming from BP and the government. The performance of these public institutions has made for a truly sorry spectacle.