While the initial effects of the massive Gulf Coast oil leak could be devastating to coastal wetlands and beaches, the subsequent cleanup could be even more damaging to the sensitive ecosystems, says a wetlands expert in Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA).
"Let's say that they're able to stop the leak, the best thing they can do is to try to intercept the oil before it comes ashore … Sometimes the cleanup itself can be as hard on the environment as the oil itself," said Christopher B. Craft, the Janet Duey Professor in Rural Land Policy at IU Bloomington and past president of the Society of Wetland Scientists, an international organization devoted to sound wetland science, management and stewardship.
"They do things like pressure washing rocks and sand, and any kind of attached organisms get blown off," he added. "They may end up excavating sand off beaches. The marshes, which really dominate Louisiana coastline, are mostly vegetation and cleanup there is really going to be problematic."
Oil from the massive leak in the Gulf of Mexico has started reaching coastal wetlands along the Louisiana coast and is expected to reach the shores of Mississippi and Alabama as well.
"The biggest problem now is that they can't seem to stop the leakage," said Craft, who studies biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in coastal and inland wetlands, focusing on restoration of tidal marshes, such as those found along the Gulf coast
"If they could do that, they could at least contain the problem, but from what I understand it's going to be weeks, possibly even months before they're able to do that," he added. "The fact that there doesn't seem to be a quick solution to stopping the leaking is what concerns me the most."
Craft said the region's coastal fisheries industries, which supply shrimp, shellfish, oysters and crabs to our nation's supermarkets and restaurants, are at risk. Fish also are affected, but he is more concerned about "the things that can't swim quickly to get out of affected areas."
The IU professor has previously seen the effects of a major oil spill on a coastal region. He was involved in the restoration efforts necessary because of the Amoco Cadiz, a crude oil tanker that ran aground off the coast of Brittany, France in 1978. At that time, it was the largest oil spill ever.
It will take several years for affected Gulf Coast areas to be cleaned and recover, and will depend on how much oil actually comes ashore.
"Nature will recover on its own, but in the absence of some human help, it will take a long time," he said.
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