There’s one thing that’s very important to remember when we talk about the Gulf of Mexico and the aftermath of the BP oil disaster. Which is this: That it’s not as if everything was all hunky-dory in the region, environmentally speaking, before April of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. To the contrary, human activity — industry, agriculture, suburban development — along the mighty Mississippi basin has been placing major stress on the Gulf, and the extent of the problem has led to expanding dead zones.
This major, lengthy investigation from Environmental Health News is one of the best pieces that I’ve read lately on what — besides spilled oil — has been killing marine life in the Gulf:
Washing off farms and yards, nitrate is largely responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s infamous “dead zone.” Nitrate and other nutrients from the vast Mississippi River basin funnel into the Gulf, sucking oxygen out of the water and killing almost everything in their path.
The pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sewage treatment plants along the rivers already have spent billions of dollars, and some farmers now use computers to apply fertilizer with pinpoint precision.
But after three decades of extensive efforts to clean it up, nitrate along the rivers is getting worse.
The piece spells out just how the Gulf’s dead zones occur, and what they mean:
When the nutrient-rich water empties into the Gulf far downstream, it triggers a biological phenomenon with deadly results. The nutrients serve as an all-you-can-eat buffet for hungry algae. The phytoplankton population booms and then dies, sinking to the bottom, where bacteria decompose the organisms and use up precious oxygen in the process. The resulting low-oxygen environment – also called hypoxia – is so toxic that all animals must flee or die.
Hypoxia drives away shrimp, crabs, and fish and kills creatures such as worms at the bottom of food chains.
“There is die-off, a loss of ecosystem diversity,” said Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist and Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin, La. “If you have continuous year-after-year hypoxia, some animals won’t be able to recruit back into the area.”
The article notes that while a state and federal task force has sought to reduce the Gulf’s dead zone almost in half, to about 1,930 square miles, by 2015 — instead the dead zone has grown to a massive 6,800 miles, while experts look for a solution. What’s to blame? The biggest sources of nitrogen pollution are farm fertilizer and livestock manure, and these activities have been increasing — particularly after a boom in corn production (before this year’s drought, anyway) in the Mississippi basin. Another likely source is growing population, especially to the west along the massive Missouri River tributary. Some experts believe that nitrogen from farming and other uses is trapped in groundwater and leeching out over decades, which may explain why modern pollution control efforts aren’t really working.
Needless to say, the problem of growing dead zones places a premium on making sure that we don’t pile further gunk into vast expanses of the Gulf — which is what makes the BP spill loom even larger, if that’s possible. Increasingly, scientists are finding that the oil from Deepwater Horizon attacked critical areas — wetlands and salt marches — already under assault from human activities.
Recently, I posted here about the loss of critical wetlands on Cat Island in the wake of the massive oil leak from Macondo. There was another report about the damage to Cat Island just the other day, and it breaks your heart:
The erosion on one of the islands is dramatic: before the oil spill, it was about five acres. Now, it is down to less than a half an acre. Part of the problem is, when there is not enough land, pelican eggs are ending up in the water. Those will never hatch.
Currently, a coalition of environmental groups is pushing for expected BP fine money to restore some of the damaged lands:
The new report by a coalition of six environmental and social equity groups offers recommendations for 39 specific projects, some with price tags of $100 million or more, in five states affected by the spill. The groups — Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy and Oxfam America — want BP to rebuild coastal wetlands, reefs and other buffer zones and protect large swaths of land for conservation purposes.
The single largest line item proposed in the report is $378 million for the restoration of Louisiana’s Barataria basin, including new dunes, marsh and oyster reefs and the filling of oil canals.
These recommendations are just that — utimately whatever funds are doled out need to be distributed fairly across the region. But to say that this the very least that BP could do through its penalties would be quite an understatement. But more importantly, we know that the least that BP could do isn’t enough to save the Gulf of Mexico. America needs to place a priority on saving the Gulf — not just the considerable damage from the oil disaster but also the ongoing crisis of dead zones. It’s not too late, but it’s going to require a lot more guts and gumption than our leaders have shown until now.
To read the Environmental Health Service investigation of nitrate pollution and dead zones in the Gulf, go to: http://www.alternet.org/story/156294/dead_zone_pollution_is_growing_despite_decades_of_work,_so_who’s_the_culprit?page=entire
Check out my earlier July 13 blog post about the environmental damage to Cat Island at: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/more-bp-fallout-will-the-baby-birds-ever-come-back-to-cat-island
To learn more about the environmental groups seeking BP money for Gulf restorations, go to: http://revmodo.com/2012/07/18/environmental-groups-bp-must-restore-gulf-coastland/
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