Oil Spill Live: What We Still Don't Know About the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Editor's Note: Field & Stream Contributing Editor Hal Herring and photographer/_FlyTalk blogger Tim Romano are at the Louisiana coast this week to cover the impact of the oil spill on the region's sportsmen. Their reports, photographs, and videos will be posted here at The Conservationist blog._

Photographer Tim Romano used this oil-coverd camera to shoot the following underwater video clip of an oil slick just off Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands this weekend.

What we don't know about the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster would fill a shelf full of books. The situation is as complex as the marsh systems and the deep blue Gulf itself. But for right now, here are five questions that top the almost endless list:

1) How long will the well keep spewing oil into the Gulf?
Since April 20, the day the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, 210,000 gallons of oil per day--about 3.5 million gallons so far--have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. As of May 9, the affected area in the Gulf is about 130 miles long and 70 miles wide, and spreading. One million feet of boom has been set in the attempt to keep the oil away from wetlands and beaches. Yesterday, the fishing closure in Louisiana was extended west of the Mississippi River, bringing an entire region's primary economy to a halt. Efforts by BP to drop a domelike structure over the well head, 5000 feet down in the Gulf, were unsuccessful. Oil is coming ashore on the famed wade-fishing Mecca of the Chandeleur Islands, which as of May 7th were protected by booms in only a few places. We witnessed some booms that had been set already tossed onto the beach by waves, and partially buried in the sand. According to news reports, small "tar balls" were coming ashore at Dauphin Island, Alabama, and oil sheen has reached as far west as Timbalier Island, Louisiana. The bulk of the spill remains offshore, held there by winds from the north.

2) What are the effects of the dispersant chemicals on the marine environment?
The Deepwater Horizon spill response has included the largest-scale use of dispersants in history--over 325,000 gallons so far have been sprayed from planes or applied by pipe directly to the site of the spewing oil. The most commonly used are the Corexit Series produced by New Orleans's own Nalco Corporation, and their effects remain unknown. So are the effects of dispersed oil rather than concentrated oil. The dispersant chemicals have definitely helped to break-up the oil slick (as Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post described it: "the same way dishwashing liquid works on grease"), but there is no understanding of what the trade-offs might be. The oil will be much less sticky (which may help save wildlife), but it is now mixed into the water column rather than floating on the surface. The dispersants are designed and marketed for shallow water use to break up the oil and allow sunlight and micro-organisms to degrade it into less toxic components. There is no research available on use of the chemicals in deep water, and at the 5000-foot depths where the oil emerges, there is no sunlight to degrade it, and no one knows what microorganisms might exist to help break it down. For that matter, no one knows what lives there at all.

3) How will the spill affect spawning gamefish?
Species from bluefin tuna to red snapper are in the midst of their spawning seasons right now. The eggs of these pelagic fishes are "laid" in open water, and drift with the currents until hatching. The central Gulf is a major spawning ground for these fish species. How they will be affected by the spill remains unknown.

4) What is the long-term plan to manage the spill?
Beyond booms and dispersants, no one can say exactly how to address the challenges posed by this much oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has proposed a radical fast-track effort to build an enormous chain of new barrier islands, a sort of permanent boom, around the marshes of his state. Such a plan has been discussed before to try to slow down the rapid loss of marshes and barrier islands--when we visited Breton Island with veteran guide Capt. Gregg Arnold, he was surprised to find that much of the island that he's fished only a few years ago was gone--but it has not been viewed as feasible until now. The island-building proposal could have extremely negative short-term consequences for some wildlife and fisheries, but it could not be as negative as having the oil come into the marshes.

5) If and when the oil reaches the coastal wetlands, how do you clean it up?
No one seems to know. Studies done following other oil spills show that the chemicals used to clean up the oil can be more damaging in the long run than the oil itself. In our interview with Hopedale Marina owner Glenn Sanchez, he expressed severe concern: "I don't think you could clean it up without destroying it." Sanchez is almost certainly correct. In a recent article in the research and policy magazine Miller-McCune, reporter Melinda Burns quotes John Miller, the head of NOAA's Hazardous Materials Response Team, who had overseen about 100 oil spill cleanups. "'I can't think of any good example where a cleanup has been anything other than useless. It causes more damage than not doing anything at all. Once the genie gets out of the bottle, there's no getting it back in. That seems to be proving itself once more in New Orleans.'"

Deepwaterhorizonresponse.com is a good place to find detailed descriptions of the coordinated response to the spill. The site is updated daily.