Unparalleled ecological disaster

For nearly a decade I lived in coastal South Carolina near several significant estuaries, the Intracoastal Waterway, coastal barrier islands and, of course, Myrtle Beach.

Among my favorite spots to visit was Murrells Inlet, where much of the ocean life of the Atlantic gets its start. It is literally where life begins. Those salt marshes emit a unique, um, odor. You get used to it. Sort of. It is the smell of life.

It is beautiful, with the salt marsh grass swaying in the breeze, the water rising and falling with the tide, teeming with life.

The EPA estimates that estuaries such as Murrells Inlet serve as nursery grounds for two-thirds of the nation’s commercial fish and shellfish. No salt marsh – no oysters. No shrimp. No flounder.

The shallow water provides lots of food to small fish and provides some level of protection from larger predators (but not from the many birds there – hey, it’s tough to be a hatchling!).

But when an oil well gushes crude that eventually washes with the currents and tides into the marsh, the results are disastrous. Those coastal inlets and estuaries along the Gulf coast will suffer for years.

To any environmentalist, this is devastating.

But even if you’re not a tree hugger, you need to understand how damaging this is economically. It will put people out of business. Fishing crews, marinas, seafood restaurants and marketers, transportation. Hotels. Much of the tourism industry in Louisiana, Mississippi and neighboring states is likely to be hurt. And they’re still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Estuaries endure all sorts of natural disasters. Hurricanes, etc. But they have endured hurricanes and other forces of nature for millions of years. Comes with the territory. But nothing prepared nature for oily sheets coating everything and black blobs of goop fouling anything it touches.

It poisons algae, plankton, microscopic marine animals, the animals that eat them and the animals that eat them. Fish, birds, people.

You can’t pressure wash a marsh.

All the Dawn detergent in the world won’t go much good here, unlike the rocky coast that the Exxon Valdez fouled 21 years ago.

And because of the nature of estuaries and the nature of crude oil – and its sheer volume – experts are speaking in terms of years and decades – decades – of recovery from this disaster, which has not even fully unfolded yet.

Meanwhile, the blame game is getting louder.

Government officials blame BP, BP blames contractors, know-it-alls blame government and BP and the contractors.

Obama is down in the polls, based on his “response” to the explosion, sinking and subsequent uncontrolled gusher.

OK, so Bush didn’t cause the hurricane to hit New Orleans, and Obama didn’t cause the rig to explode (unless you believe the conspiracy nuts).  But we had some programs in place to deal with hurricanes, however ineptly it was handled (“Heckuva job, Brownie!”).

Not sure how much planning has gone into dealing with a deep-water oil well disaster on this scale, in that deep water. Nobody seems to really know what will happen next. There are huge blooms of oil lurking under the surface in the Gulf. Where will they end up?

They’re trying all kinds of “dispersants” to break them up, but the research behind all this stuff isn’t terribly reassuring. Will it work? Do these chemicals represent an unintended risk? Is the cure worse than the disease?

BP has been blamed for using a drilling technique that cut a few corners and probably caused the initial failure. The guvmint has been blamed for being too cozy with oil companies (hmmm, why does this sound so familiar? Wall Street? SEC? Big Banking? Fannie Mae? Freddie Mac? Big Oil? EPA?).

Where’s Sarah Palin chanting “Drill, baby drill” ?

Now BP is going to try using “top kill” to plug the mess — in essence dumping a bunch of mud on top of the gusher in hopes of smothering the gusher.

The Coast Guard thinks this is our best shot to plug it.

I hope it works.

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