Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on the Environment and Species


An oil spill is when any form of oil or petroleum is released into the environment, whether on land or in a marine environment. There are many ways that this can happen. One way is when crude oil is deposited into ocean waters illegally in order to avoid spending extra money to decompose the oil. Another way is when natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes cause oil containing rigs to be damaged and leak oil. Ship wrecks could also be a way to cause oil leakage, which is what caused the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. One other possible way to leak toxic oil into the environment is for operations to go wrong while drilling using oil rigs, which is what caused the biggest oil spill in US history on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion was caused by an oil drilling rig known as the Deepwater Horizon. Being inspected for regulation and safety by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, and passing its standards for efficient and safe use for oil drilling, the Deepwater Horizon was used to operate and accomplish the drilling record for the deepest oil well in history. However, during drilling the well at Macondo, there was a blowout of water which caused an eruption causing the drilling rig to collapse and broke the piping that connected to the well. Much was speculated and it was found that the part which was used to drill needed to be replaced but instead of replacing it, they continued drilling. As a result of this devastating oil spill, biomes such as the marine water biome, which includes oceans, estuaries and coral reefs, were also affected. Being part of a biome, living things such as sea turtles and plankton were affected which in turn affected ecosystems and the food chains of many different species. This incident would have long lasting effects on many species which will take years if not decades to resolve and certain actions by government and communities should be taken to facilitate efforts in order to rejuvenate these habitats back into their original state.

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The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989 happened on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled almost 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in the Prince William Sound waters by clashing onto a Bligh Reef (West). Thousands of birds, fish, and other animal species died as a result and although cleanup efforts were utilized to get rid of the most immediate and apparent damages, the environmental damage still has not been repaired (West). Analyzed by the National Transportation Safety Board, the causes of the accident includes the irresponsibility of the shipmate to steer the ship into the correct direction, failure of having a proper navigation watch, the Exxon Shipping Company to provide a sufficient crew for the ship, and the US Coast Guard's ineffectiveness of the vessel traffic team (West).

Biome Affected Due to Oil Spill

The Gulf of Mexico is a huge habitat for many species of animals and provides many marine resources such as navigation, recreation, commercial fishers, oysters, and shells. It is also the home to most of the world's whooping cranes. Due to the oil spill, all of these animals and whole biome itself was affected. The biome that the Gulf of Mexico falls under is the marine biome. The marine biome includes oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries primarily. Oceans provide the greatest diversity of species and have the greatest biomass. . The area bordering Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico has almost 90% of the marine life of the north part of the Gulf and is an estuary, which has a varying amount of salt concentration and creates a unique ecosystem. When toxic oil is introduced to this already situated habitat, it affects the animals and other living things that survive here. The Mississippi Delta is another estuary that dumps roughly 4.75 million gallons of water into the Gulf of Mexico and having little salt in its water, the oil that has spread

Colonies of tiny living animals known as corals secrete calcium carbonate and when the calcium carbonate accumulates, Coral reefs are made. Such species of animal are found as barriers along continents and consist of both algae and tissues of animal polyp. Delicate coral reefs have been harmed by the crude oil being spread around as a result of the powerful Gulf currents. Coral is very abundant on the sea floor of the Gulf and it needs oxygen in order to survive. Unfortunately, there have been plumes of oil found at the site of the spills in the deeper parts of the Gulf which gets consumed by microbes, which removes the oxygen needed by the coral and since the Gulf waters mix very slowly, it would take a long amount of time to replete the area. In order to fix this problem, the US environment decided to allow shooting massive amounts of dispersing chemicals however, when mixed together with the oil, it causes the oil to sink thus allowing for the contamination of the reefs and animals with this toxic mixture. The currents of the Gulf have also spread this toxic oil to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Comparing the temperature of the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico to waters of this sanctuary, it is relatively warmer in the sanctuary which allows for the reefs to heal quicker, although it will take decades if not longer for it to heal moderately since Coral is very delicate.

Ecosystem and Food Chains Affected

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Having affected the marine biome, the Gulf Oil Spill has affected many ecosystems and food chains. Having many different communities made up of populations of species working together and living in the same area makes up an ecosystem. This also establishes a food chain, with primary producers being on the bottom and carnivores and omnivores being on the top. Being part of the marine biome, the Gulf produces a lot of biomass such as plankton and biomass, which are primary producers. With all this toxic oil, the production of such plants has been affected. When enough primary producers are not present in an environment, all the organisms higher up in the food chain are also affected because they do not have any food to survive on. In the Gulf, organisms such as crickets, spiders, ants, and crickets are vital to its ecosystem, for playing roles in its environment such as being seed dispersers, soil aerators, and pollinators. Due to oil, dispersants, and cleanup activities, the population of insects were being affected, which in turn causes the population of frogs, fishes, and birds to be affected and then eventually the number of fishermen and birdwatchers are noticeably reduced, affecting the economy ultimately. Therefore, if bugs and insects suffer, then people will also suffer (Hopper-Bui).

Populations of Animals Affected

With all these changes in the ecosystems and biomes, many species of animals and organisms have been affected. One of those species is the Dolphin. The good thing about dolphins is that oil does not stick to their skin; however, if such oil vapors are inhaled, it would ultimately damage the animal's airways and lungs and mucous membranes, which would lead to death. Along with the lung damages, a dolphin's eyesight is also very prone to oil exposure. From toxic crude oil, comes an abundance of bacteria which can possibly impair a dolphin's immune system and cause bacterial and fungal infections. Such hydrocarbons could possibly be transferred to young dolphins when they feed on their mothers.

Another species of organisms affected by this oil spill were the whooping cranes. These are an endangered species of cranes named for its whooping sound and are endangered due to habitat loss. When birds float on the water or dive into the water for fish, they get exposed to the oil by either having it on their feathers or ingest it while diving for fish. This in turn, causes them to lose their ability to fly or have severe problems in their digestive tract. These birds also feed on many other organisms such as frogs, small rodents, and small birds and other grain such as wheat and barley which were also affected by this oil spill. If producers/consumers lower on the food chain is affected by a certain environmental disaster, then organisms higher on the food chain are also affected.

Response for Communities and Government to the Oil Spill

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill lead to many investigations as to why it might have occurred and the BP oil company has faced many charges and allegations regarding that and is still leading to many lawsuits. Many are outraged after finding out about the results of the investigations. It has been speculated that the inspection reports were filled in pencil by federal regulators and then later traced over by other regulators (Bourne). It was also speculated that the blowout preventer itself had been faulty all along and the inspectors of the rig were not careful enough to make note of it and allowed for procedures to keep going along (Elliot). Even when a small leakage was suspected, officials had declared that the blowout preventer had kicked in but there was no guarantee it did (Robertson). It was also confirmed by using remote-controlled robots, but sill BP officials insisted and expressed confidently that the leak would not ever reach the coast due to its slow speed (Robertson). One other cause of the spill to worsen was the flawed cementing job of capping the well prior to blowout (Elliot). Four corporations, Halliburton Company, Cameron International Corporation, Transocean and BP PLC were responsible for the equipment, drilling, and servicing of the Deepwater Horizon and the government was partially responsible for this oil spill due to the failure of adequate regulatory oversight by the executive and legislative branches.

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The government should have been more careful to let companies drill for oil under water. They should put up certain committees to check over equipment for safety and overview procedures for action before any emergencies occur and if there are any loopholes in the written documents or any flaw in the inspection, the government should penalize these companies. Furthermore, the oil companies themselves should employ capable and trustworthy employees to carry out such important tasks and not overlook potential threats for disaster. With the current situation, the government still has to be dependent on BP to cap the oil well because it does not have the resources to do so and to do so quickly enough (Bourne). Another thing that the government could do is provide money to help the affected locations rather than providing money for the research to see what caused the leakage because populations of valuable species are dying and it won't be helpful just to see the causes of the problem rather than finding a solution to help the ones that are dying.

Right now, due to such irresponsibility of the companies associated with the spill, thousands of species of animals and plants are being affected and diminished and the diversity of these species in the Gulf of Mexico is decreased. Before any more harm is caused to these animals due to the oil being in their natural habitat, either the oil should be filtered out or certain measures should be taken to remove as many animals as possible since removing all the animals would be an unrealistic goal. Although both options would cost the government and companies a lot, it would be cruel and morally unethical leave these organisms to suffer.

As a community, individuals could and should play a part to relieve the organisms affected. People could send money to agencies that are working to restore the affected locations near the Gulf or go there directly and help in the treatment of animals. Volunteering in animal shelters or at the veterinarian's office would significantly help. People living in that area are also being affected due to this incident. For instance, water wells that provide fresh water to the community could be contaminated due to the oil spreading into lakes and rivers. In order to fix or at least prevent people from being sick, the sanitation departments in that area should be provided with incentives and funds to regulate and check the water for contamination and toxicity at a regular basis.

Future Impact of the Oil Spill

Even after 21 years of the Exxon Valdez Spill in 1989, there is still an estimate of 21,000 gallons of oil that remains in Alaska's Prince William Sound (Donovan). Species of organisms that live near the area nest and reproduce in that area and the pollution might cause generations of species to be lost (Donovan). If 21 years was not enough to restore the areas that were in distress and damaged due to the oil spill and the animals were still not able to recover and live as they had used to in those areas, then it could be said that the damages caused by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill will also take a long time to heal being the worst oil spill crisis in American comparing the 4.9 million barrels of oil lost in the Deepwater Horizon Spill vs. the 261,904 barrels of oil lost in the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Cutler).

There are many long term effects of this spill. Due to the use of dispersants in the water (Donovan) in order to get rid of the oil, the ocean is being further contaminated by harmful chemicals, which would cause even more species to die. Along with that, the health of the people is also at risk because the heavy vapors that result from the oil are volatile and if inhaled, could cause cancer (Donovan). It could also affect pregnant women leading to mutations, which would further affect the gene pool and the number of offspring being born. People with respiratory diseases are at risk (Donovan). In addition to health problems, this oil spill is affecting the economy. The Gulf of Mexico provides approximately 1/3 of the shrimp, oysters, crab, and craw fish in America and with them dying due to oil ingestion; it would be harmful for humans to consume them also, which in turn causes a decline in the industry. Many species also spawn in the Gulf during this season, for instance the Bluefin Tuna stocks (Donovan). Since there is so much contamination in the waters, spawning and reproductive behavior is greatly affected. In my opinion, over time, everything will be back to normal. However, our communities and the government can play a role to speed up the process. Overall, it could be said that even 20 years would not be sufficient for recovering the damages done by this oil spill.