BP oil spill: the disaster that never materialised
100 days after the spill began, American journalist Michael Grunwald exposes an over-hyped catastrophe
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico created "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" according to Barack Obama. True or false? One hundred days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, Time.com yesterday posted a report which seriously questions whether the damage caused is as bad as the US President and others have made out.
Under the title 'The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?',
the award- winning journalist and author Michael Grunwald reports that the severe environmental damage prophesied by the White House and green campaigners has simply not materialised.
"The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared," geochemist Jacqueline Michel, who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana, told Grunwald.
Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, a former professor at Louisiana State University, told Grunwald: "There's just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good - I think they lied about the size of the spill - but we're not seeing catastrophic impacts."
Van Heerden, who is working for a spill response team being paid for out of BP funds, said: "There's a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it."
Another environmental consultant, with more than 30 years' experience of oil spills, said: "People always fear the worst in a spill, and this one was especially scary because we didn't know when it would stop. But the public always overestimates the danger - and this time, those of us in the spill business did too."
Grunwald acknowledges that the long-term potential fallout is "unknowable" at this relatively early stage. But the statistics now available do not point to the "environmental catastrophe" that even BP's Tony Hayward admitted to (after some prodding).
The effect on bird life is a case in point. Grunwald reports that clean-up teams have collected nearly 3,000 dead birds, but fewer than half of them were visibly oiled. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, by contrast, is estimated have killed as many as 435,000 birds.
Green groups have warned of the fate awaiting dolphins caught in the oil. But so far, says Grunwald, wildlife response teams have found only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals.
Fishing and shrimping in the area has been severely restricted - adding to BP's huge compensation bill. But, so far, "the region's fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted".
Grunwald's expertise is swampland - he wrote a much-admired 2006 history of the Florida Everglades called The Swamp. The potential damage to Louisiana's marshlands of the BP spill was of particular concern to environmentalists because the disintegration of wetlands was already deemed a "slow-motion" calamity before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded.
Here again, Grunwald's research has come up with underwhelming evidence of an eco disaster. Six hundred miles of oiled beaches and marshes have been documented in the first 100 days since the spill, but while the oil has blackened the fringes of the marshes, most of it has stayed within a few feet of the edge. "Waves from a recent tropical storm did carry more oil a few meters inland," Grunwald reports, "but very little of it infiltrated the wetland soils that determine the health of the marsh."
In fact, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year through erosion, partly caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River and partly due to the oil and gas industry, which has gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through the region.
According to Paul Kemp, another former Louisiana State University professor, the impact of the spill on the already eroding marshland can be compared to "a sunburn on a cancer patient".
Two reasons why the effects of the spill have not been as catastrophic as expected are that the leaking oil is unusually light and degradable, and that the water in the Gulf of Mexico is warm - certainly compared to the Prince of Wales Sound where the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo of crude - which has helped bacteria break down the oil.
Grunwald, a senior correspondent for Time, who has won the Worth Bingham Prize and the Society of Environmental Journalists Award in his time, concludes: "Anti-oil politicians, anti-Obama politicians and underfunded green groups all have obvious incentives to accentuate the negative in the Gulf.
"So do the media, because disasters drive ratings and sell magazines; those oil-soaked pelicans you saw on TV (and the cover of Time) were a lot more compelling than the healthy ones I saw roosting on a protective boom in Bay Jimmy." ·
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