The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?
By Michael Grunwald / Port Fourchon, La. Thursday, Jul. 29, 2010
President Obama has called the BP oil spill "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the "Catastrophe Along the Gulf Coast," while CBS, Fox and MSNBC slap "Disaster in the Gulf" chryons on all their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted the spill was an "environmental catastrophe." The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it "the leak" — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.
Well, Rush has a point. The Deepwater explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it's no leak; it's the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It's also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. "The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.
Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the birds killed by the Exxon Valdez. Yes, we've heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but, so far, wildlife response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of any mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And, yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana's disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but, so far, shorelines assessment teams have only found about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year.
The disappearance of more than 2,000 square miles of coastal Louisiana over the last century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn't making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to "a sunburn on a cancer patient."