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Gulf Marine Life Still Lives In Spill's Horror


The disaster aboard the Deepwater Horizon was followed by a mind-boggling environmental disaster. People around the world were riveted by images streamed over the Internet, of an underwater pipe spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months on end. And there was a seemingly endless stream of photos in the news media of birds, fish and other wildlife caked in black muck.

Christopher D'Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University, has closely observed the aftereffects of the spill. He's at member station WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Chris, welcome to the program.

Professor CHRISTOPHER D'ELIA (Dean, School of the Coast and Environment, Louisiana State University): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: Five million barrels of oil were spilled. Do you know how much oil remains in the Gulf and what's being done about it?

Prof. D'ELIA: Well, the statistics are somewhat debated, I would say. There are scientists who feel there's a great deal of oil that remains in the Gulf. But the statistics from the federal government suggests that a great deal of it has been either removed physically or has been biologically degraded by microbes.

HANSEN: It could have been a lot worse. What are some of the factors that kept it from being - this oil spill even a bigger disaster?

Mr. D'ELIA: Well, we were really very lucky in terms of just the fundamental meteorology that occurred during that period of time. If the winds had been persistently from the south and southeast, I think a lot more of it would have been blown onto the shoreline. I think another thing happened that was sort of interesting is that the way the oil came out of the riser pipe, it was jetted with a lot of natural gas, and that formed a lot of small droplets of oil which are more biodegradable. And I think that helped as well.

HANSEN: What impact do you see on marine life today?

Mr. D'ELIA: The immediate acute effects were relatively less than many people, including me, expected. I think that we certainly were mesmerized by the inevitable pictures of birds with oil all over them and things like that. But we were pretty lucky because the extent of that was not as great as might have occurred.

The more difficult issue is what happens in the longer term? What are the more subtle effects that we're going to see every succeeding year after the spill? We're right now into the very active spring spawning season - and this is when people are out collecting data - that will illuminate our ability to understand what is happening.

HANSEN: I read a story this past week about Pass Christian with young dolphins and snapper turtles washing up on the beach. Could blame be put on the oil spill for that?

Mr. D'ELIA: I'm sure it's a prime suspect. There's always the problem of identifying the cause of a large mortality of any species. So, you have to look for all kinds of evidence. You look for pathologies, you look for toxicities -what we call biomarkers, and you got to piece it together. It's a forensic thing really.

HANSEN: Is it possible to predict when the Gulf will be declared clean? I mean, safe for marine life, safe for fishing, harvesting, safe for swimming?

Mr. D'ELIA: The good news there is the vast bulk of the Gulf right now is safe for fishing. There are only a few areas that are still closed off. Both the federal government and the various states along the Gulf are doing a lot of testing of the seafood, so there's reasonable assurance that the seafood is safe in the larger part of the Gulf. So, that's very good news.

The other thing to always bear in mind is the Gulf is a large, large body of water. Although this was a huge spill in its dimensions, much of the Gulf was never touched by the oil.

HANSEN: You sound very optimistic.

Mr. D'ELIA: Well, I have to have a little sense of optimism. I think that for the places that were oiled I'd have a lot of concern. Will the marshes come back? You know, there's a die-off that occurs in severely oiled areas typically. So, there are still plenty of places for concern, but I think we've got to be careful not to overreact, too, and to just assume that everything is hopelessly polluted, because that just isn't the case.

HANSEN: Christopher D'Elia is dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He joined us from member station WRKF. Thank you very much.

Mr. D'ELIA: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.