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Longer-term impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

07/09/2010

With the BP oil spill leaking over a long time period, it could take a decade before major impacts of the oil spill in the gulf are over, says James Oris, professor of zoology and associate dean for research and scholarship at Miami University in Ohio, who researches the effects of fossil fuels on marine life.

“It’s completely different than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill (in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989). The Exxon-Valdez oil spill involved the crash of a tanker ship, the leak was stopped within a few days, and the active phase of the 11 million-gallon spill was over within 2 months,” said Oris, who provides scientific leadership on the assessment of the effects of the oil spill in Prince William sound for Exxon.

Among the deep water effects Oris cautions about in the Gulf:

• Oil, being a complex chemical mixture that has some parts that float, and other parts that sink, is causing a hazard on top and at the bottom of the ocean. Burning off the surface layer simultaneously kills some marine life. At the ocean’s bottom, while bacteria will eat the heavy oil parts, bacteria also consume oxygen, so theoretically, overactive oil-eating bacteria could end up killing the undersea creatures that need oxygen, like crustaceans.
• Spiraling currents in the gulf catch algae and seaweed, which makes for a great habitat and food source for shrimp, crabs and other marine life. They also act as a kind of biological sponge and can soak up large amounts of oil, accumulating oil where the animals live.
• Large marine organisms (sharks, mantas) that aren’t killed by a toxic spill are the first to leave an area, so we’ll see them more often in places where they should not be, such as closer to shore.
• Oris and others will be interested to see if phototoxicity in the open water also proves deadly to aquatic animals. His research in lakes showed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from fuel absorb sunlight in freshwater and that energy activates oxygen, which burns cells. In theory, it would burn fish skin and cause sunburn on their gills, which could kill them.

Because the spill is still occurring, the second phase – clean-up – and the third phase – recovery – cannot yet begin in earnest, observes Oris. Oris’ experience in Alaska showed him that in addition to the economic and environmental impact of a major oil spill, there is psychological impact. In Alaska, people have been diagnosed with depression and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder after the Exxon Valdez spill.

“Communities will need to deal with all those factors,” said Oris. “But in the meantime, people will do well to acknowledge two realities: It was a great feat of engineering to drill this oil well. It will take a great feat of engineering to try to fix the spill.” and “If the oil isn’t there (on your shore) yet don’t be afraid to go there for your vacation.”

Oris can be reached at (513) 529-3600 or orisjt@muohio.edu.

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