The Doubly Dead Zone

By Bill Moore

Posted: 30 Apr 2010

With all the attention being rightly focused on the growing environmental disaster taking place off the coast of Louisiana caused by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, I think we need to remember that the oil spill isn't the only man-made ecological assault on the region. We are now in the process of creating a 'doubly dead zone.'

Every Spring, some 6,000 square miles -- on average -- of coastal waters stretching from Alabama to Texas experience a phenomenon called hypoxia. Vast algae blooms, stimulated by phosphates and nitrogen run-off from the application of agricultural fertilizers in the Mississippi drainage, which comprises 40% of the landmass of the United States, create a region of oxygen-starved water that kills untold numbers of marine life. The illustration below from the Times Picayune, the newspaper of record in New Orleans, shows how the process occurs. The NOAA satellite map above shows the extent of the region with areas of lowest oxygen content marked in red, which changes with the seasons, the worse happening in late Spring and early Summer. At the bottom of this page is a map showing the extent of the Deepwater Horizon blowout as of April 28, 2010.

Now the fishing community, which has learned to avoid the "dead zone," is about to be handed a yet another economic and environmental set back as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, now estimated to be 5,000 barrels ( 210,000 gallons) a day, pollutes virtually the same area, only this won't be seasonal. It could take months to cap the leaking wellhead some 5,000 below the surface of the water. Unless a miracle happens, this spill likely will pale the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound, Alaska, which was never properly cleaned up; residue can still be found in the beach sands. Unlike the hypoxic 'dead zone' that effects seabed organisms and ecologies, this BP spill will now kill marine life, both aquatic, avian and mammal, in the top layers of the Gulf stretching initially along sensitive national wildlife refuges on the Mississippi delta, and spreading to as far East as the pristine white beaches of the Florida panhandle, west to the Texas gulf coast.

Sadly, this tragedy could have been avoided, we're now being told, had BP spent an additional $500,000 to install a remotely controlled wellhead shut-off valve, which purportedly is required by every other offshore oil producing nation except the United States. Exactly what happen on Deepwater Horizon may never be known in its entirely, though, fortunately, many of the crew were able to escape to safety, so hopefully they can clarify the picture. But the lesson is very clear: drilling for oil and gas offshore is an expensive, dangerous, dirty business; one we need to think very hard about before we go opening up more areas of exploration and exploitation. And if, as the Obama Administration recently announced, we give oil companies permission to drill, we'd better make sure they are bonded to cover disasters like this. We must not let them reap the profits, while we foot the bill for the clean-up. I expect BP to fully pay for this disaster, but I can almost guarantee they will do everything in their power to avoid it. We must not let them.

As radio talk show pundit Ed Shultz put it today in reflecting on this developing environmental and economic disaster, "Those electric cars are starting to look pretty good about now."


Click to Enlarge

Addendum: The EPA has now established a web site to provide information on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill at http://www.epa.gov/bpspil. Additional information on the broader response from the U.S. Coast Guard and other responding agencies is available at: http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com.

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