NEW ORLEANS — The crude has stopped gushing and coastlines are largely clear of the thick goo that washed ashore for months, but the impact of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history will no doubt linger for years.
Six months after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion, the environment and economy of the entire northern Gulf of Mexico region remain in a state of uncertainty, with overturned livelihoods, out-of-work fishermen, reluctant tourists, widespread emotional anguish and untold damage to the sea and its shores.
It could be years before the spill’s true effects are understood. The science is largely scattered about what the roughly 200 million gallons of oil that spewed from BP PLC’s blown-out well — some 170 million gallons of which actually spilled into the Gulf — will ultimately mean for the animals and plant life that inhabit one of the world’s most diverse bodies of water.
“There are some things that are starting to reveal themselves already,” said Steve Murawski, chief fisheries scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “But it’s going to take a while for us to gain some perspective.”
Murawski predicted scientists will be studying the region for years, as they have been doing since 1989’s much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
“This will be with us for decades for sure,” he said.
The doomsday scenarios feared during the worst period of the gushing well did not play themselves out, as much of the oil is believed to have evaporated or been dispersed, marshes have sprung back to life and fewer dead animals than feared have been found.
But that good news does not mask concerns that the country might be turning its attention away prematurely, considering the very real damage that has been done.
“I can honestly say, I guess, I’m very pessimistic about it,” said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, whose oyster beds are all dead or dying. “We don’t know where we’re at. We don’t even have a complete assessment of the damage or how long it’s going to take to correct it. This is our life, though. We have nowhere else to go.”
The government has reopened about 90 percent of Gulf federal waters to fishing, and says all seafood caught in the newly opened areas is safe to eat. Yet the commercial fishing industry remains in turmoil, suffering from an acute image problem.
Loads of shrimp and fish are hauled in, but processors are finding little demand from a wary public.
The federal government maintains much of the oil is now gone from the Gulf of Mexico. But independent researchers say they are discovering significant amounts of crude below the sea’s surface, including on the ocean floor. They fear the oil that remains could harm species lower down the food chain and affect reproduction rates of fish such as bluefin tuna, which were spawning in the area at the time of the spill.
Oil is still buried in the sand on beaches across the coast, and crude continues to plague some of Louisiana’s shores. Some marshes of Barataria Bay — home to productive shrimp nurseries and oyster beds, and thousands of sea birds and migratory species — are still being soiled.
A $20 billion BP compensation fund has so far paid out nearly $1.5 billion to business owners and fishermen along the coast suffering from a summer of lost revenues. But many are still waiting for checks and struggling to pay bills.
BP will be facing billions of dollars in fines once a damage assessment is complete.
Meanwhile, the six months since the spill began have brought many changes to the offshore drilling industry.
The federal government swiftly imposed new regulations on the business following the spill. It recently lifted a moratorium on deep water drilling in the Gulf, but it could be weeks before rigs that are able to meet the tougher standards can get back to work.
The danger of a future catastrophe persists as oil companies continue to drill in deep water even though many measures that could help head off future spills — better cap-and-siphon containment systems to choke off leaks, for instance, or more thorough testing and analysis to prevent blowouts — are not yet in place.