Aspen Ideas speaker: Gulf disaster also lurks below water’s surface | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Ideas speaker: Gulf disaster also lurks below water’s surface

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, Ronnie Rouse, of T&T Marine Salvage, a company contracted to clean tar balls off of Galveston beaches, picks up a tar ball on East Beach in Galveston, Texas Tuesday July 6, 2010. Test results confirmed Tuesday that all the tar balls found over the weekend on beaches along the Texas Gulf Coast are from the Gulf oil spill, officials said. (AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner)

ASPEN – The populations of numerous species of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico are likely to plummet because of the high levels of carbon pumping into the water from the BP oil well disaster, the top official in National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said the full extent of the environmental disaster might not be known for years.”We don’t yet know all the ways that will play out. It can certainly kill a lot of young stages [of aquatic life],” she said.For example, the Gulf Coast is one of only two known spawning areas for Atlantic blue fin tuna. Eggs and larvae are in the water at this time of year.”If they are affected by this oil, then that will undoubtedly have very serious consequences to those populations,” Lubchenco said. “The same is true of lots of other species.”The oil is toxic to the larvae and eggs and will poison them, said Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and environmental scientist. She visited the bayou country and beaches of Louisiana last week. “It’s really, really sobering and sad to see that oil,” she said.At Grand Isle, she accompanied a shoreline assessment team that recommends clean-up strategy. They look at the surface and dig into the sand. The oil at the surface was like “chocolate cake batter” before baking, she said. Down a few inches into the sand there is a different layer that washed ashore a week earlier. A storm blew in sand that buried the initial oil deposit.”Many, many of the beaches are going to be multilayers of oil, so the cleanup of these is going to be a major challenge,” Lubchenco said. “It’s not just as simple as skimming it off the surface.”The oil is leaking from the ruptured pipeline from BP Deepwater Horizon well at a rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. BP and government scientists underestimated the flow of oil for weeks. Lubchenco downplayed the significance of the low calculations and claimed the federal government’s response wasn’t affected by the miscalculation.The environmental damage is also tough to gauge because there is a cloud of minuscule water droplets hovering beneath the Gulf’s surface in the vicinity of the well. “The images you’re seeing at the surface are only part of the story,” Lubchenco said.The leak is 5,000 feet below the surface. Some of the gushing oil makes it to the surface. Other oil is broken up by turbulence and broken into small drops measured in parts per million. The fine cloud is at a distance of 3,300 to 4,600 feet below the surface.”That layer is introducing a lot of carbon into this ecosystem, and we don’t know what the fate of that will be. This is really unprecedented,” Lubchenco said.She held out hope that the legacy of the BP oil leak disaster will ultimately be positive despite the cost to wildlife. She noted the “tragedy” unfolded as the country was celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. “If that isn’t ironic, I don’t know what is,” she said.Earth Day was created, in part, as a legacy of an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969. The public response to that spill, plus the blossoming environmental movement, led directly to passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, she said.It’s up to Americans to determine what needs to occur in the aftermath of the BP leak.”Forty years from now, what will be the legacy of this disaster?” she asked.scondon@aspentimes.com