Scientists Say Worst Hasn't Happened In Gulf
DAVID GREENE, host:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
BP says that on tomorrow it will seal off the Macondo Well once and for all. The well ruptured in April, and the explosion killed 11 workers. For nearly three months, millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Many predicted the spill would devastate the ecology of the Gulf Coast. Here's President Obama in June.
President BARACK OBAMA: Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.
BLOCK: Now, NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that many of those dire predictions simply haven't come true.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Three months ago, brown pelicans looked like sitting ducks. Louisiana's state bird was just off the endangered species list, and BP oil was inundating some islands where pelicans were busy incubating eggs or feeding chicks.
As biologists rescued oil-covered birds, they worry that many thousands would die when a much bigger wave of oil came in.
Mr. MICHAEL CARLOSS (Biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries): I like to kind of refer it to as almost a demon sitting offshore, you know, lurking some kind of evil nemesis, you know, waiting to come and impact. And that's the scary part.
SHOGREN: That was Louisiana state biologist Michael Carloss in June. Today, he says that demon never came.
Mr. CARLOSS: Based on what I've seen, we definitely dodged a bullet, and it has not been what it could have been by any means.
SHOGREN: Carloss says so far in Louisiana, about 300 dead pelicans have been found. And of the several hundred that were rescued, 86 died. But that's just a tiny fraction of Louisiana's approximately 100,000 birds. And when Carloss goes back to those nursery islands, he sees lots of strong, healthy youngsters.
Mr. CARLOSS: Now, there's all these young birds that are fledging, and they're learning to feed and fly.
SHOGREN: Scientists also were sounding dire warnings about the coastal marshes. This spring, Professor Robert Thomas from Loyola University in New Orleans was predicting that a vast oil slick would devastate them.
Professor ROBERT THOMAS (Scientist, Loyola University New Orleans): And once it coats those wetlands, once it contaminates oyster reefs, once it starts to contaminate the estuaries where 95 percent of the commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico have their nursery grounds, a major calamity is what we're going to have to deal with.
Mr. KERRY ST. PE (Director, Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program): But that didn't happen.
SHOGREN: Kerry St. Pe, a top expert in Louisiana's wetlands, says the biggest reason it didn't was BP's aggressive use of dispersants. Those chemicals that BP sprayed on the well broke up the oil into tiny particles and spread it throughout the water column. That helped keep the oil out at sea.
Mr. ST. PE: We still had oil impacting our internal estuaries but not near as much as could have happened.
SHOGREN: To St. Pe's surprise, he estimates that the level of destruction is about the same as from oil spills that most of the country never heard of. He expects the wetlands will recover within three to five years. He's already seeing bright green shoots emerging from marsh grasses that had been soaked in oil.
Mr. ST. PE: Ecologically, we're going to come back from this. The wetland plants that were impacted are re-sprouting. Those wetlands will remain largely intact.
SHOGREN: The outlook might have been much bleaker if as many people feared a big tropical storm had hit the region. Here's what Billy Nungesser, president of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, told CNN.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
Mr. BILLY NUNGESSER (President, Plaquemines Parish): Worst-case scenario is a Katrina-type storm would lift that oil up and blanket all of south Louisiana, not only killing the marsh but contaminating where we're sitting right here -the football field, the high school. I don't know if we'd ever clean it up.
SHOGREN: Small storms did propel some oil into Louisiana's wetlands and onto the beaches of other Gulf states, but the big blanket didn't come. Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says even though hurricane season isn't over yet, that risk is gone.
Dr. JANE LUBCHENCO (Marine Ecologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): There is so little oil left on the surface that that's just not a worry any more.
SHOGREN: Another fear was that something called the loop current would bring BP oil and its toxic effects into the Atlantic Ocean. But Lubchenco says the loop current was not reaching as far up into the Gulf as it usually does.
Dr. LUBCHENCO: So it just has not acted as a conveyor belt of oil outside the Gulf. We lucked out on that one.
SHOGREN: But the news isn't all good. Lots of BP oil did go to places where young sea turtles feed. Veterinarian Brian Stacy was part of a team that three months ago was snatching hundreds of the severely endangered animals from oily waters.
Dr. BRIAN STACY (Veterinarian): We're worried about the oceanic turtles being out there in it now. And in weeks to months, we'll be worried about hatchlings leaving the beach which essentially go to the same type of habitat and are going to be much smaller turtles and even more sensitive to the effects of oil.
SHOGREN: The government decided to move all of the turtle nests - hundreds of them - out of the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Ocean. But a few weeks ago, with most of the surface oil gone, the government stopped moving nests. It's now leaving more than half of them along the Gulf Coast.
Even so, turtle expert Blair Witherington says the damage may already have been done, especially to the one- and two-year-old turtles.
Dr. BLAIR WITHERINGTON (Research Scientist, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission): It could be that it is equal to or greater than our worst fears.
SHOGREN: Witherington says biologists don't know how many died without anyone seeing them. He says it's one of many unanswerable questions about the damage the spill is causing to the animals and plants that live in the open gulf.
Dr. WITHERINGTON: I mean, it's almost as if the spill occurred on Mars. And it's going to be awfully hard to get to these places and conduct the measurements that we really need to do. It's just going to be darned difficult.
SHOGREN: For example, how do you calculate how many tiny larval fish died after gobbling up drops of oil? Scientists are scrambling to find out what they can before evidence disappears.
While the well was still gushing, researchers, including Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia, discovered plumes of diluted oil and gas that stretched for miles in the deep water of the gulf.
Dr. SAMANTHA JOYE (Marine Sciences, University of Georgia): There is oil there. You can see it. You can smell it. And when you filter the water, it's visible on the filter, so these plumes do exist.
SHOGREN: Joye was back at sea in recent weeks, but she didn't find anywhere near the same concentrations of oil and gas in the deepwater. She did find lots of oil on the sea bottom, along with dead shrimp, worms and plankton.
So, is the BP spill the nation's worst environmental disaster? Worse, say, than the Exxon Valdez spill or the Dust Bowl of the 1930s? NOAA's Lubchenco says it is, even though many of scientists' fears weren't realized.
Dr. LUBCHENCO: You know, this is a major catastrophe, and it has had already devastating impacts.
SHOGREN: The spill pummeled the economy of the coast, as well as its ecology. But it could take years or even decades for experts to total up the damages, and some victims won't ever be counted.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.