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Did the Media Kill Gulf Tourism?

07/29/2010

I read this article by Michael Grunwald on Time.com. It’s a more worthy read than I could do justice to the subject:

President Obama has called the BP oil spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the “Catastrophe Along the Gulf Coast,” while CBS, Fox and MSNBC slap “Disaster in the Gulf” chryons on all their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted the spill was an “environmental catastrophe.” The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it “the leak” — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.

Well, Rush has a point. The Deepwater explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak; it’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana.

Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the birds killed by the Exxon Valdez. Yes, we’ve heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but, so far, wildlife response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of any mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region’s fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And, yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana’s disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but, so far, shorelines assessment teams have only found about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year.

Extensive oil booms surround marsh lands off the Louisiana coast

The disappearance of more than 2,000 square miles of coastal Louisiana over the last century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.

Marine scientist Ivor Van Heerden, another former LSU prof who’s working for a spill response contractor, says “there’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts,” says Van Heerden, who, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid out of BP’s spill response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater Horizon oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is comparatively light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Prince William Sound, is balmy at more than 85 degrees, which also helps bacteria break down oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. Finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden’s assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes, and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I had ever seen that were actually black. “It comes back fast, doesn’t it?” Van Heerden said.

My conclusion is the sensational media coverage turned an industrial accident with significant potential environmental ramifications into an economic disaster for the tourism (and other related industries) with each stroke of the “enter” key on their keyboards. Too bad. It’s a beautiful part of the USA.

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