The BP oil spill is one year old this week. The whole disaster killed or injured 28 rig workers, thousands of birds and hundreds of marine animals, and spewed 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf over three months.
The disaster has helped to focus an intense spotlight on a Gulf already suffering from human encroachment. Between 4,000 and 8,000 square miles of sea bottom die each summer from lack of oxygen and coastal wetlands the size of Rhode Island have been lost in Louisiana in recent decades.
Yet, beaches along the northern Gulf attract billions in tourism dollars, the seafood industry supports thousands of families and the waters act as a nursery for many species, some that only breed in the Gulf.
In the year since the disaster, BP has continued to manage the event, promising restoration and holding out that both the environment and peoples' livelihoods will be made whole eventually.
Meanwhile, an army of federal and state agencies are on a fact-finding mission to tally the damage to natural resources and encourage BP to make restitution in a process that is growing by the day, with more than 30,000 samples collected and tens of thousands of other pieces of evidence involved.
It's a process that has been successful with smaller spills in getting oil companies to pay without going to court.
But there are so many kinds of damage with the BP spill that hundreds of lawsuits have been filed. After all, NOAA's Troy Baker in the assessment division said last week, "No one has faced a region-wide oil spill before. We have a region-wide set of impacts, from the ecology to human use of the Gulf."
It's that same process, however, that is creating a type of gag order on findings from the Gulf -- keeping scientists who are contributing to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment quiet until all is settled, which could be years. And that comes while other noted scientists are working for BP.
The process is leaving those who live along the northern Gulf distrusting of government, optimistic about the beaches and this year's crop of seafood, but leery that what lies below the surface of the Gulf in the water and on the sea floor will haunt them for decades and generations.
Evidence it's gone
The Gulf is big, 600,000 square miles. The oil spill amount has been likened to a football field cubed. The amount of dispersants used was 1.84 million gallons.
All was released into an eco-system that is fragile and very diverse -- from ancient, slow-growing coral reefs in the deep to thousands of square miles of shallow marshlands.
"There's good evidence that a large part of the oil is degraded or diluted away," said Dr. Joe Griffitt, aquatic toxicologist with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab. "There are trillions and trillions of gallons of water in the Gulf."
But for toxicology, that's not the point.
Having it in the breeding grounds at all during the spring and summer reproduction cycles last year could leave a lasting mark.
"While it was a dirty Gulf, there's no way releasing that much oil and dispersant in the water is good for anybody," he said.
But looking back, Griffitt said, "For a long time the oil stayed in the middle of the Gulf, had it gone inland faster to the estuaries, it would have been much worse."
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