After more than 100 days, the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is finally stanched. What a relief! As long as the crude spewed, the Gulf’s beaches, marshes, oyster reefs and fishing grounds and all of the people who depend on them remained under a withering assault.
That might be the end of the spill story at the well head. But it’s only the very beginning of the restoration story.
There’s been mounting talk that the Gulf oil spill story is over. No longer national news. No longer a crisis. No longer a worthy focus of our attention.
That sort of narrative seemed to be supported by a report issued last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which estimated that 74% of the oil has already evaporated, dispersed into tiny droplets, or been swept up. The report went on to say that the remaining 26% poses relatively little risk because it is continuing to break down.
End of story, right?
Not by a long shot. It’s certainly good news about the 74%, although many Gulf scientists dispute the definitive nature of that finding.
But even if we assume that the report is correct, stopping the gusher and sopping up some of the oil does not mean that the risks are gone and that the damage is fixed. It just means that the disaster finally isn’t getting dramatically worse every day, and that the clean-up phase is off to a good start.
The other 26% of the oil is still out there. That’s 50 million gallons — almost 5 times as much as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. It’s already damaged hundreds of miles of coast, besmirching beaches, choking marshes and contaminating sediments. That damage still has to be repaired.
And now there’s evidence that those tiny dispersant-caused droplets are getting into the food chain that will feed next year’s harvest of shrimp, crab and other seafood. Contrary to suggestions that the risks have passed, I would say that the remaining oil still poses important risks that are not fully understood.
So the hardest work still remains — restoring the Gulf and the bounty of resources and benefits it provides. We need to help Mother Nature regain her strength. Beaches need to be cleaned. Marshes need to be replanted. Oyster beds need to be nurtured. Seagrass beds need to be restored.
The Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems have been being degraded by human activity for decades — and, while the Gulf is incredibly resilient, we can only knock it down so many times before it will struggle to get back up. The spill has highlighted both that resilience and that tenuousness. We have to act now to restore this globally unique natural wonder.
The gusher has been killed. Check. A remarkably large percentage of the oil has evaporated, dissipated or been cleaned up. Check. Now the story really begins, as federal and state agencies and the conservation community — led by the Conservancy — get on with full-scale restoration efforts, so that the Gulf once again teems with life. Check back here to follow our progress.
(Image: Fresh tarballs of oil found on August 10, 2010 on absorbent booms deployed on Coffee Island, Alabama, directly behind the Conservancy’s oyster breakwater project there. Image credit: Jeff DeQuattro/TNC.)