Contrary to recent media reports of a quick recovery in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists and biologists are "deeply concerned" about impacts that will likely span "several decades."
"My prediction is that we will be dealing with the impacts of this spill for several decades to come and it will outlive me," Dr. Ed Cake, a biological oceanographer, as well as a marine and oyster biologist, told IPS, "I won't be here to see the recovery."
Cake's grim assessment stems partially from a comparison he made to the Exxon Valdez oil disaster and the second largest oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (BP's being the largest), that of the Ixtoc-1 blowout well in the Bay of Campeche in 1979.
"The impacts of the Exxon Valdez are still being felt 21 years later," Cake said, "The impacts of the Ixtoc-1 are still being felt and known, 31 years later. I know folks who study oysters in bays in the Yucatan Peninsula, and oysters there have still not returned, 31 years later. So as an oyster biologist I'm concerned about that. Those things are still affected 31 years later, and that was a smaller spill by comparison."
He is also concerned about deepwater habitats. Given that BP has used at least 1.9 million gallons of chemically toxic dispersants, the vast majority of the oil has remained beneath the surface, and much of that has sunk to the sea floor.
As an example, he cited "a new coral colony ecosystem" within 10 miles of BP's blowout Macondo Well, which was found by a pipeline company whilst it was producing an environmental impact assessment statement of the route of the pipeline.
"They found some amazing coral communities that no one knew about, and now they will be covered in oil," Cake said, "Those will not recover."
Dr. Stephen Cofer-Shabica, an oceanographer in South Carolina, focuses on the biology of barrier islands. He monitored the affects of the Ixtoc-1 oil disaster on Padre Island National Seashore in south Texas.
"You can go back now, 31 years later, and there's still oil in the sand there [Padre Island]," he told IPS. But his main concern is now about what the state of Louisiana is doing in response to BP's oil disaster.
Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal has authorised the dredging and building of sand berms near Louisiana's barrier islands in an effort to keep oil away from the shore. One area where the dredging project is still underway is the Chandeleur Islands.
"The Chandeleur project is totally futile and a waste of resources, and I can't believe they are still doing it," Dr. Cofer-Shabica said, "That's what I find totally unfathomable. There's oil floating around underwater, that has been dispersed and these barrier islands, as constructs, will not have any effect on that oil at all."
According to Dr. Cofer-Shabica, the so-called fix is actually a hugely destructive problem. "From an oceanographic perspective, this was biologically destructive, especially when you start digging up the bottom in shallow water, and building these barrier islands."
He added, "Louisiana is in a precarious position anyway because of the subsiding that is happening in the delta, and on top of that you have worldwide sea-level rise, so it has two physical factors that are working against its marshes. So building barrier islands to presumably keep oil out, amidst rising sea levels, makes no sense."
In addition to this, he said that the biological impacts of building islands "are larger than the physical impacts," and said this of dredging sediment from those areas: "You're in shallow water that is biologically rich with clams, worms, and bacteria, that will all be dug up and destroyed."
Dr. Cake is also worried about oil contaminating the oysters. He has seen much oil in Louisiana's marshes. "One of the experts with us worked for NOAA on the Exxon Valdez spill, and he told me if the oil is on the marsh grass, it's in the oysters."
BP and the Coast Guard are currently under scrutiny for having used so much oil dispersant, an industrial solvent that breaks up the oil so that it will sink below the surface.