193,000 barrels of oil spilled in Gulf wetlands due to Katrina
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
September 23, 2005
Reports from the Coast Guard indicate that at least 193,000 barrels of oil and other petrochemicals have been spilled in wetlands and coastal areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm ruptured pipelines, damaged oil storage facilities, and chemical production plants. More than 40 oil spills have been reported, four of which are over 100,000 gallons — at Murphy Oil Corporation Meraux, La., near mile marker 87 Mississippi River; Bass Enterprises Production Company Cox Bay, La., near mile marker 35 Mississippi River; Shell Pilot Town, La., near mile marker 3 Mississippi River; Chevron Empire, La., near mile marker 30 Mississippi River.
The magnitude of the spills approach that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill which unleashed 240,000 barrels of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
The ecological damage to the region’s marshlands is believed to be significant but a full assessment is likely months away. Already the Louisiana Department and Wildlife and Fisheries’ have estimated a potential $1.1 billion loss in retail fisheries revenue over the next year.
Scientists interviewed by THE WALL STREET JOURNAL say that long-term damage from crude oil will likely be less than that of spilled petrochemicals.
“Crude is the least of the problem,” says Dr. Paul Sammarco, a researcher at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, who has performed research on the effects of oil spills. If contained and removed in time it usually leaves no lasting impact on marshes. But other petrochemicals likely to have been loosed by Katrina — refined products like diesel or fuel oil or gasoline — are much more toxic to wetlands, he says. Should large amounts of those settle into marshes and other lowland areas, “they are much more difficult to deal with.”
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL also notes that Louisiana’s wetlands and coastal habitats have long been suffering from flood-control efforts on the lower Mississippi River.
The storm represents a dispiriting turn of events for a coast already under siege. It has been shrinking at a rate of about 25 square miles per year, owing in part to federal flood-control measures on the lower Mississippi River, begun in the 1920s. The flood system channeled the river between giant levees that largely shut off the 8,000-year-old silting process that had gradually built the Louisiana delta. Wetlands help protect inland areas from floods by slowing tides and creating miles-deep buffers that absorb the energy of wind and waves.
The natural erosion of the wetlands has been exacerbated by the dredging, over the past 50 years, of thousands of miles of bee-line canals. Dug with state and federal approval mostly by the oil and gas industry, the canals allowed salt water into the freshwater marshes and swamps, killing them off. The result: a massive pooling effect in which wetlands died off and sunk, leaving open water in their wake. This in turn exposes more marsh and even uplands to further erosion.
The loss of these coastal marshlands that buffer New Orleans and the Gulf Coast from flooding and storm surges may have worsened the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Though “few suggest that even pristine wetlands would have fully shielded the coast from Katrina’s destructive force,” researchers at Louisiana State University say that the hurricane’s impact “could have been meaningfully diminished, perhaps saving some of the state’s levees from the catastrophic breaks that occurred” (THE WALL STREET JOURNAL). Other studies have shown that for every square mile of wetlands lost, storm surges rise by one foot.
Katrina’s legacy will serve as a reminder of the importance of coastal wetlands.
This article used quotes and information from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
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