US oil spill worsens, Louisiana coast under threat

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Old 29-Apr-2010
US oil spill worsens, Louisiana coast under threat

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana: As a massive oil slick nears the fragile Louisiana coast, officials braced Thursday for an environmental disaster which threatens a slow and painful death for waterfowl, wildlife and their wetland habitat.

An estimated leak of 1000 barrels of oil a day are still leaking to gulf


Any oil spill is devastating. But experts say the US Gulf Coast -- home to 40 percent of the nation's wetlands and a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry -- is particularly vulnerable.

And the concern is multiplied by the fact nobody knows when oil will stop spewing from an offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico that was destroyed last week following a deadly oil rig explosion.

"It's not like a bunch of volunteers can go (drive) down and mop up the beach," said LuAnn White, director of Tulane University's Center for Applied Environmental Public Health.

"There are just miles and miles of coastal wetlands there that can only be reached by boat. And they're very delicate."

High tides and winds can push the oil deep into the marshes of the remote Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area that juts into the Gulf.

Just getting to the slick could take hours -- and once there, there's nothing to stand on, let alone anywhere to set up a command center.

Previous spills have shown that controlled burning might be the best way to allow for a natural recovery given the difficulty in trying to mop oil out of wetlands, White said.

"As long as that oil is there it's going to prevent the foundation of the food chain from living and thriving," she explained.

The initial toll on wildlife is likely to be high. The final tally could be devastating.

The wetlands are teeming with life. Fed by the rich sediments of the Mississippi delta, it's a prime spawning ground for fish, shrimp and crabs. It's full of oyster beds. And it's a major stop for migratory birds.

Birds and mammals can suffocate or die of hypothermia if their fur or feathers are coated in oil.

When that happens on a rocky shore, volunteers rush to capture and clean them. They will be harder to find in the marshes. And there isn't much for cleanup crews to stand on in the muddy waters.

Turtles, alligators, dolphins, whales and other marine animals are at risk of inhaling or ingesting the oil when they surface for air or eat prey covered in oil. That can lead to inflammation, organ damage and other complications.
Another major concern is that the toxins will kill the grasses which keep the sediment from washing away into the sea.

"One of the most dangerous aspects of this is the possible oiling of some of these inshore habitats which would have long-term effects on our fisheries resources," said Tom Minello, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"If you get direct oiling of intertidal salt marshes and sea grass beds it'll just kill the vegetation. It takes years for a wetland to recover from that kind of oiling."

While oil floats, some hydrocarbons nonetheless sink and cause problems with toxicity which can kill off fish larvae and other marine life.

"If this thing continues for months like people are concerned about, we're going to have a lot of other potential impacts," Minello warned.

Crews began controlled burns of a small section of the giant slick Wednesday as a cruel wind shift raised fears that it could reach the shoreline as early as Friday night.

Miles of protective booms were also floated along the outer reaches of the Mississippi delta to try and protect the coast.

But Wednesday saw bad news for environmentalists.

Federal authorities said they discovered a new oil leak by the same ruptured well on the ocean floor some 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface, and that about 200,000 gallons a day -- five times more than previously estimated -- has been spewing into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon platform sank April 22, two days after an explosion killed 11 workers.

Its operators have failed so far to fully activate a giant 450-tonne valve, called a blowout preventer, that should have shut off the oil as soon as the disaster occurred but only partially reduced the flow.

As a back-up, engineers are constructing a giant dome that could be placed over the leaks to trap the oil, allowing it to be pumped up to container ships on the surface.

But the experimental dome could take up to four weeks to construct and the oil slick has already spread to a 600-mile (965-kilometer) circumference.

"This is the accident that clearly proves that coastal oil industry is dirty, it's dangerous and it's deadly," said Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network environmental group.

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