Checking In On Gulf On Heels Of BP Spill Report
NEAL CONAN, host: More than a year after the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a new government report pins the ultimate blame on BP. In the nearly 17 months since the disaster began, offshore drilling has returned to near-normal levels, and many businesses and residents along the Gulf Coast report that life has returned largely to normal. Still, tar balls washed up after recent storms, and long-term effects of the oil are still under study. If you live along the Gulf Coast, what's life there like now? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to our npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ed Overton is a professor emeritus at the Department of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University and joins us now from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge. Nice to have you on the program today.
ED OVERTON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And I understand you were in the Gulf collecting samples just last week. What did it look like?
OVERTON: Well, it was - it looked remarkably normal. We were going down there trying to go in the spots where some of the local fishermen think there's still buried oil there and see if we can find it. And so we were out visibly looking for oil on the surface, and we were also grabbing sediment samples and things like that. And we went to some of the really heavily oiled areas, and just off of those, there was essentially no oil buried in the near-shore sediments. So what was very incredibly interesting was that some of these areas which were just really massively oiled last year looked almost normal to the visible eye.
We didn't get out of the boat and stomp in through the marsh. We understand there's still oil that'll ooze up in the marsh. But, gosh, the cane was green. It was growing tall. It looked essentially normal. If you hadn't known there was an oil spill 17 months ago, you wouldn't know that there was any oil there to the visible eye at any rate.
CONAN: So there's no sheen on the water?
OVERTON: No sheen whatsoever. Well, the natural sheen is all over the place out there, but no sheens from the oil spill. That's not terribly surprising because oil after it's in the environment, it withers, and it losses that kind of property to sheen. Fresh oil sheens and forms these slicks you see, but withered oil doesn't sheen to a great extent.
CONAN: And when you say oil in the sediment, was there oil in the sediment in the places that were heavily oiled?
OVERTON: Well, back in the marsh where the oil was retained, you can dig down and find oil oozing up. So, yes, there's still a lot of oil in some of these areas that were pretty heavily impacted during the summer of 2010. Of course, it's not the whole coastline, only about, oh, maybe 10 or so miles seemed to be heavily oiled. These are what we call fringe oiling. The oil goes back maybe 20 or 30 or 40 feet from the open water interface back into the marsh. And there's still oil down in the root structures, in the coastal plants, but it's not evenly spread over the whole coast.
And it doesn't appear from just a visual inspection to be affecting the growth of those coastal plants. It was truly amazing to see this area, which I expected to see a lot of dead - not trees but the dead rubbish coastal marsh, and it looked totally normal. You couldn't tell the difference between a heavily oiled area visually and adjacent areas which had not had any oil at all.
CONAN: And what do you hear from fishermen?
OVERTON: Well, fishermen are still very concerned. I mean, you just have to remember that a year ago, there was oil everywhere - I mean, literally everywhere. This was the biggest mess you've ever seen, and it included both the beaches, sandy beaches, as well as coastal marshes. So there was a massive amount of oil. Come one year later, it's not all that obvious that the oil is still there, but everybody is concerned that it may be buried. In fact, that's why we were down there sampling, is to go to these areas, to try to ascertain whether there is still residual buried oil in these new coastal environments.
And these are the environments where fishermen, where the charter boat captains take people out to go fishing. And, of course, I think it's still affecting their business because their fishing business has not returned to normal. And one of the reasons is that people think there's still oil everywhere. So the purpose of our sampling was to go in and try to scientifically ascertain is the oil there or not. This was completely independent of either the government or of BP, just another attempt to assess just how much oil is out there.
CONAN: The fish that are being caught, are they the same size as fish have always been? Are there fewer or more? What do you know?
OVERTON: Well, the reports I get, the fishing is great. I mean, people are going out there, they're catching fish. The limit on the numbers of fish they can catch, they limit out. You know, the fishing industry is highly regulated with so many recreational fish that you can catch of a given species, but almost all fishing trips catch the limit of those different species. They come back with lots of fish. They're big fish. There have been some reports of some offshore redfish, the red snapper that have been affected by some sort of a blight. But generally speaking, almost all of the fish that I've seen - my son goes out all the time, and all the fishermen that I've talked to - seem to be pretty much normal pre-spill conditions.
CONAN: And we want to hear from those of you who live in and around the Gulf Coast. What is life like there now? 800-989-8255. Email, email@example.com. And we'll start with Scott, and Scott is on the line from Pensacola.
SCOTT: Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
SCOTT: Hey, well, my concern isn't really seeing the oil everywhere. I know a lot of that stuff is gone now or it's not visible at least. But my concern really is what I can't see. You know, like right after the oil spill had happened, within about a month or so my - both of my kids had respiratory problems, and they never really had any problems prior this. We don't have a family history of that. And, you know, both of them ended up being hospitalized for awhile, and they couldn't pin it on the oil spill but, you know, it's - the problems are mostly gone right now.
And I feel that, you know, that's kind of emblematic for a lot of the things that we're going to probably face here in the Gulf Coast, that we won't really be able to pin these health problems on this specifically because it could be a multitude of other things. But at the same time, it creeps in the back of your mind, you know, every time you get sick or if you start coughing too much, it's like, is this related to this? If you go to the beach and you come back and you have a rash, is this related to it? And that's the stuff that really concerns me, it's not so much like seeing the oil - I mean, although that does concern me - but just what I don't see out there, and what I don't know and what we'll find out 10, 15 years from now when, you know, when we get cancer or when we get some other problem that we wouldn't have had otherwise.
CONAN: Ed Overton?
OVERTON: Well, of course, what you don't see worries us all. You know, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill five years later, there was a significant impact in the herring fishery. So the impact from oil, basically, we divide it into things: those that you can see - and that's pretty obvious the oil birds, the oil beaches, the oil marshes - and the impacts that you can't see, and this is what Scott is talking about. Some of those occur at the smallest animals in the environment, those are the single and multi-cell organisms, those right at the surface, (unintelligible) and juvenile species, and it's the impacts that you can't see that have us all worried. And a lot of times, those are not obvious and won't be obvious for a number of years. So we cannot say with any reasonable certainty that the level of impacts until all of this plays out. That's just going to take several years.
I've not heard of human health impacts of the kind that Scott is describing. All over rashes and things like that are one of the symptoms of exposure to oil, but there are a lot of other things out there - as you know, jellyfish, the stinging jellyfish - there's a number of things that can cause it, and there are a number of red tide issues. Whether those type of responses are responses to the oil spill or are they natural responses, I don't know. Those are the type studies that are currently ongoing and, hopefully, will be scientifically documented over the next several years.
CONAN: Scott, thanks very much.
SCOTT: Yeah, you're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Fabrizio(ph), Fabrizio calling us from Naples, Florida.
FABRIZIO: Yes, hi.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FABRIZIO: Yes. You know, I just wanted to comment. I'm not an expert on any of this, but I live on the beach in the beautiful southwestern Florida. And I have to say that I have not see any oil or tar balls on our beaches and also that our live flora and our fauna seems to be unaffected. There's a great richness of birds and fish. Reports from fishermen that I know and - are good, and so it's a positive. I realize that we are pretty far from where - from the epicenter of where the spill was and it's mostly Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama were (unintelligible). But you would also think that such a large spill would affect most likely the entire Gulf, you know.
CONAN: Yeah. During the spill, we were worried about oil coming around the tip of Florida, entering the Gulf Stream and hitting beaches as far away as North Carolina.
FABRIZIO: Yes, I remember that. Yes.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, Fabrizio. And we have heard reports that the recent storms did stir up tar balls. Have they been tied to the BP spill?
OVERTON: Well, we haven't gotten the samples to the lab yet so - but I'm relatively certain that they'll be fingerprinted back to the Macondo spill. This is fairly normal after a spill, the oil washes ashore. It gets buried by normal processes, the erosion that occurs day in and day out. And oil that is buried on the beach or in the marsh is extremely difficult to even find. So the oil is kind of - gets down there. Now, we're not talking about the massive amount of oil. We're talking about relatively small amount of oil that's get - that gets buried along the beaches.
And when heavy weather comes such as happened with Tropical Storm Lee, then that tidal effect washes those mats up, breaks them up into tar balls. And after all these events, we're going to see an increase in tar-balling over a short period of time. This is going to happen for another year or two or maybe three. It will get less and less intense. But after major weather events, we can expect tar-balling and all of these ultimately resulted from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
CONAN: And there were reports earlier this year of dead baby dolphins washing up on the coast.
OVERTON: That's right. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has declared what they call an unusual mortality event, and that is that there's unusual number of dead dolphins washing up along the shorelines. Now, the interesting part of this is that the unusual mortality event clearly started in February and March of 2010, and the oil spill didn't occur until the end of April 2010. So the initial portion at least of the unusual mortality event for these marine mammals started well before the spill, two months or longer before the spill.
Now, the complexion of the animals that are being washed up may have changed in 2011. That's still being studied by NOAA, but something was definitely happening and some of it was not related to the spill, some of it may be related to the spill. We just don't know yet.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kristin(ph) and Kristin with us from Norfolk in Virginia.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KRISTIN: Yes. The reason that I was calling, I lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, during the oil spill. And, you know, one of the things that I think people are forgetting here, regardless of the fact that we aren't seeing the leftover remnants of the spill directly, as beautiful as the Gulf Coast is, the people who are living there and working there are still dealing with the psychological trauma that's related to this experience. And a lot of those fishermen and the people who are raising families there, you know, they're wondering what's going to happen, what is being done to prevent this from happening again? And do we need to be concerned that this could end our family lifelong business and such in the future? So I just think we need to keep that in mind. It's not just about, you know, what we're seeing. It's about the psychological issues that exist with some of these people right now, currently.
OVERTON: Kristin, that's a really good point. You know, oil spills cause several kinds of impacts. They cause ecological impacts. They certainly cause an economic impact, and they cause a sociological impact as you just described. And people are very concerned. There was many statements in the media and elsewheres about the Gulf being destroyed for decades to centuries. Of course, those were way over-speculation, but it has people worried. And people are still worried about the impacts of this massive oil spill. Time will heal these worries, but in the meantime, they are very concerned and we need to try to do everything we can to allay their concerns.
KRISTIN: Absolutely. Thank you.
CONAN: Kristin, thanks for the call. In the meantime, we heard that, indeed, the inundation of freshwater from the floods all the way up through the Midwest that came down to Mississippi and, indeed, some of the rain from Tropical Storm Lee has had a serious effect this year on some of the oyster areas.
OVERTON: Absolutely. Oysters require a kind of a brackish water environment. They can't stand the full salt of the Gulf of Mexico, and they can't stand freshwater. So they kind of live in that zone in between, which we all estuaries. Well, when you have too much rain or you let too much of the Mississippi River water flow into areas that normally are this - the brackish water, then that basically kills the oyster reefs, and it takes several years to return.
That's what happened during the spill, excess freshwater was released, the river was at a very high stage in the spring of 2010 and a lot of freshwater released killing a lot of these oyster reefs. So many if not most of the oyster in certain areas of Louisiana were wiped out by the freshwater release during the spill, but that was a consequence of the oil spill. The water wouldn't have been released if there hadn't been an oil spill there. So that certainly was related to the spill although not directly caused by the spill.
CONAN: And more freshwater released this year too.
OVERTON: That's right.
CONAN: We visited - there's an email from Michael in Duluth, Georgia: We visited the Gulf Coast near Destin, Florida, a month ago and were shocked by the amount of thick, green algae everywhere. I mean, the kids look like swamp critters when they got out of the water. It was mainly concentrated near the shore. It was weird and annoying but not hazardous, I guess. I was just curious as to whether this is a side effect of the oil spill or just a natural occurrence that I'd never noticed in a decade of trips to Florida.
OVERTON: Well, my guess is that it was a probably a natural occurrence. People are looking into whether the unusual amount of carbon that was digested from the oil as, you know, as oil goes into the environment is being digested by marine bacteria, and bacteria turn oil into carbon dioxide and other bacteria which get ingested. And so that changes, kind of, the food makeup that is naturally in the environment. So people are concerned that that might caused these algae growth and different kinds of events along the coast. So we can't rule that out.
But in general, the environment changes a lot. People don't notice it when there's not an oil spill. They're particularly sensitive after a big oil spill, and they see something that they haven't been paying attention to all these years. And they say, oh, gosh, this must be from the oil spill - probably not, can't say definitely it wasn't.
CONAN: And earlier in the conversation, you mentioned there is sheen. One of the things we've learned last year, as we all talked about the oil release in the Gulf of Mexico, there's oil release in the Gulf of Mexico all the time through natural leaks in the floor - there's lot of oil underneath there - and there are bacteria that exist to eat this oil.
OVERTON: Absolutely. The estimates are that something on the order of 40 to 50 million gallons a year are released naturally and have been over the last several hundred thousands years. So - and that much oil going into the Gulf, you'd think if the bacteria weren't there, that it would be covered with oil. And of course, you can go out and look long and hard before you find that much oil in the Gulf. So the bacteria degrade it and eat it. They are naturally there. They weren't ready for the massive amount of oil that was released over a short period of time. But given time after a spill, the bacteria will degrade most of the oil that is residual in the marine environment.
CONAN: Ed Overton, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
OVERTON: Thank you.
CONAN: Ed Overton, professor emeritus from the Department of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University with us from our member station in Baton Rouge, WRKF. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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