Oil Spill May Hasten Deterioration of Louisiana’s Ecosystem

Oil Spill May Hasten Deterioration of Louisiana’s Ecosystem

In part two of a four-part series on how the BP oil spill is affecting the region, BlackEnterprise.com addresses the environmental damage of the spill.

Even prior to the April BP oil spill, the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal region was considered fragile because of the high rate of coastal wetland loss and its vulnerability to coastal storms and climate change. But with the spill about to hit the three-month mark, the fragile ecosystem is in even further turmoil.

“Oil complicates [the ecosystem] beyond imagination,” says Kamran Abdollahi, a Southern University professor of urban forestry, natural resources, and environment. He believes that the spill will accelerate the coastline’s deterioration and predicts the loss of a significant number of coastal fisheries and habitats that are home to many endangered species and others that have only just bounced back since Hurricane Katrina.

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As of July 10, the cleanup effort has skimmed approximately 720,238 barrels, or 30.25 million gallons, of oily liquid from the water’s surface. The ecosystem’s natural components could take years or even decades to degrade the oil, Abdollahi said.

BP was scheduled to begin testing a new containment cap Tuesday, but the test was postponed to give the oil company time to analyze whether the proposed well cap would stop the oil leak.

In an ideal world, the oil industry and research universities would have joined forces decades ago to develop models of response to oil spills such as the one that the Gulf Coast is weathering, noted Abdollahi. So, instead of scrambling for solutions as they are now, there would be intense competition over whose solution is best.

Oil creates a surface that doesn’t allow oxygen to diffuse into the ecosystem, lowering oxygen levels available to both human and aquatic life. As a result, the oil spill also could have long-term effects on seafood safety because of bioaccumulation and biomagnification, says Marjorie Campbell, chair of Clark Atlanta University’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Warren Jones, a University of Mississippi School of Medicine professor, said it’s too soon to predict the spill’s long-term effects on human health, but local health officials and organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control are closely monitoring reported symptoms and conditions to detect any trends. The most immediate concerns have centered on skin and eye contact with the oil and respiratory illnesses.

Louisiana health officials recently announced the implementation of systems to monitor increases in certain types of conditions, admissions, and sick leaves. Women who are pregnant or planning to be should avoid seafood until it has been determined whether there is a risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also initiated a health surveillance program to track potential short-term effects and has created a taskforce that includes healthcare experts who were mobilized after 9/11 to share lessons and best practices on how to plan a response. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a dedicated Webpage to provide information and resources to help residents, workers, and healthcare professionals understand the spill’s effects and how to protect their health.

“The medical and health community is responding well by asking difficult questions and working with public health experts to come up with some meaningful solutions,” Jones said.

Live feeds of the oil spill from remotely operated vehicles can be viewed here.

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In tomorrow’s installment, the future of offshore drilling in the region