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Friday, May 14, 2010

Nat'l Geo: "Oil leaks could gush for years"

Posted By on Fri, May 14, 2010 at 9:00 PM

A sobering headline if there ever was one. (Also, notice the magazine's Daily News is brought to you by Shell.)

The piece recalls the 1991 Saudi Arabia spill, the largest ever on the books, which dumped 336 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf.

Up to 89 percent of the Saudi marshes and 71 percent of the mud flats had not bounced back after 12 years, the team discovered.

"It was amazing to stand there and look across what used to be a salt marsh and it was all dead—not even a live crab," Hayes said.

Saudi and U.S. Gulf Coast marshes aren't exactly the same — Saudi marshes sit in saltier waters, and the Middle Eastern climate is more arid, for example. "But to some extent they serve the same ecological function, which is extremely important," he said.

As the nurseries for much of the sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, coastal marshes are vital to the ecosystem and the U.S. seafood industry.

It's also much harder to remove oil from coastal marshes, since some management techniques — such as controlled burns — are more challenging in those environments, said Texas Tech University ecotoxicologist Ron Kendall.

"Once it gets in there, we're not getting it out," he said.

Iraqi forces opened up the oil valves in January 1991 to prevent U.S. troops from landing in the area. Dr. Martin O'Connoll with University of New Orleans Nekton Research Laboratory compared that disaster to possible long-term effects in the Lake Pontchartrain basin:

"We had some colleagues who worked when Saddam Hussein blew up the oil wells, and you go to the estuaries around there, and on the surface it looks fine — you don’t see a lot of life. The same species are still there, but you start digging in the sand, and six inches down you come across a black layer. With that layer, the crabs are not going to burrow through it. Any plants trying to establish roots, they don’t go through the black layer. Estuaries are naturally resilient places. You have tough critters like redfish and speckled trout and blue crabs, who can really withstand crappy environments. Something like this happens, people say, 'Oh, it’ll be back.' ... There are significant declines in certain species that you don’t see overnight because they’re so resilient. You can drop a nuclear device in Lake Ponchartain, next year pretty much all the species are going to be back. It’s this long term decline, people don’t realize fisheries is getting worse and worse. This oil spill is pretty much putting the cap there. We are pretty low down when it comes to what can happen here recovering from Katrina and the marsh loss. This is just going to put us back 10, 20 years, at the minimum, recovering this whole area."

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