The Road Ahead for the Gulf Coast

Heart wrenching pictures of oil-coated crabs and poisoned pelicans, black tar balls washing up on white sugar sands and endless live shots of the underwater geyser spewing millions of gallons of toxic plumes into the ocean have fixated our collective attention on the current misery in the Gulf but not the future. Those pictures and non-stop interviews with PR savvy spokesmen have tugged at our emotions but shifted the focus away from possibly permanent effects that lie in the road ahead. Some of the pain has been mitigated momentarily by BP promising to "make things right" as they hawk their $20 billion fund designed not just to help pay off but also to silence locals whose lives have been destroyed. All the while, each of their hat tricks has failed to stop the devastation; plumes the size of underwater states are eradicating sea life and the spill crawls inexorably up the East Coast.

Meanwhile the molasses-slow attempts of the White House to mollify worried Americans with useless photo-ops of the president scooping up tarred sand or lambasting no one in particular with tough guy crude remarks about kicking someone's behind or pontificating from the Oval Office have only temporarily blotted out the unfolding ecological disaster and helped to blur a clear vision of the fate that lies ahead for the citizens of the coast and possibly for the entire country. The truth might be too painful. Perhaps bringing up the long term consequences of the oil spill might cause too much angst as Americans prepare to take their families on summer vacation -- many to beaches they may not be able to enjoy much longer. Not a good thing to further inflame the electorate just before the Midterm elections. Better to let the public remain preoccupied with the World Cup or Wimbledon than with unpleasantries like the fact that the ocean is the life support system of the planet and it's being murdered before our eyes.

Many who have spent a lifetime of summers on beautiful East Coast beaches or surfed in the Pacific off Hawaii or snorkeled in the turquoise Caribbean, have learned about the importance of coral reefs. According to the Nature Conservancy, coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems on Earth,are the largest living structure on the planet and although they cover less than 1% of the Earth's surface, they are home to 25% of all marine fish species. The reefs not only serve as habitat for endless species of fish but most importantly for humans, they serve as natural barriers that protect shorelines, coastal communities, beaches and agriculture from the eroding forces of the sea. Now the oil is killing the coral reefs and dead reefs portend that future violent storms may send waves deeper inland than ever imagined, flooding everything in their path. Alabama may become the next Atlantis. At the very least, it's not an opportune time to buy beach front property.

And then there are the grasses. An Associated Press reporter who has fished in the Gulf every year since childhood just returned from the area. The reason the locals have been so worried about oil getting into the marshes, he told me, is because the marsh grasses also help protect the coast from the bad storms. If the grasses are not healthy then tidal ponds and creeks expand, reducing the land surface to water. The plants also provide food and shelter to many mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates, resulting in one of the most critical plant communities on the continent. The marshes are crucial as incubators for fish and invertebrates, and play a vital role as habitat for migratory waterfowl. Human industries such as seafood and tourism are dependent upon healthy coastal marshes both for their ability to produce and sustain life and for their ability to transform human pollution to less toxic materials. But now oil is in the marshes and it's killing the marsh grass. Without that protection, the AP reporter said, storms could literally drive an angry ocean 100 miles inland. Without the coral reefs and marsh grasses the Gulf Coast will lie as defenseless as a house without a front door or window panes.

And then there's the Corexit. BP has poured 185,000 gallons of dispersant onto the out-of-control wellhead (plus 800,000 on the surface) making matters far worse than if they had used a biodegradable version and creating hazardous health issues for years to come - both in the water and on land. The dispersant is so toxic it's been banned in Europe for years but BP evidently thinks it's ok for the USA. Unfortunately, it's killing everything in the water, including the coral, the fish, shrimp, and the traditional diet staple--oysters. (Restaurants that once served up oyster sandwiches like McDonald's serves Big Macs, now have to rely on oysters which they froze before the spill and the limited supply has driven up prices exponentially. The Po'Boy sandwich -- oysters on a special French bread -- is now only fodder for rich boys. Some Gulf restaurants are charging $18 for the Po' Boy and who knows what they'll cost as the oyster supply dwindles.) The dispersant may be keeping the oil out of sight and below the surface -- good for BP, because much of it remains invisible -- but it is causing a depletion of oxygen as well as causing oil to remain at deep sea levels. Marlin, grouper, shark , whales, snapper and tuna swim hundreds of feet down and will inevitably swim through it. Marine scientist, Ellycia Harrould-Kolieb says the spill could be an end to bluefin tuna, whose numbers are already depleted by overfishing. Even small amounts of crude could suffocate tuna as well as other deep water fish as it gets into their gills. If the supply of seafood becomes further depleted, if you think the cost of the Po' Boy is high, wait till the next time you order sushi.

A longer term problem is the health of the men and women who are trying to clean up the mess. American Rights at Work report that 27,000 men and women working to clean up the oil and chemicals have no breathing protection because reportedly BP has refused to provide it, fearing news footage of people wearing gas masks might underscore just how toxic things really are. Those unprotected workers are experiencing nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, headaches and chest pains. Their lungs and lives are at risk. The situation is reminiscent of the massive health problems experienced by the 911 workers who spent months inhaling toxic ash as they helped to clean up the detritus of the World Trade Center. They were told the air was safe. Now the cleanup crew in the Gulf is being exposed to toxins that may destroy their health. Benzene, a deadly carcinogen, which has a 'safe' level of 0 to 4 parts per billion, is being measured at 3,400 parts per billion in the air around the Gulf region. With poisons in the air as well as the water, and hurricane season in full swing, how long will it be before countless people are affected? Gulf residents are beginning to ask whether they can afford to live there anymore. Their livelihoods are wiped out and health problems related to the spill are arising. But with joblessness in the US still at 10%, where can Gulf residents go to find jobs that will pay for a new home, let alone health care? Some of the Gulf workers say they have only known shrimping all their lives and are not educated or trained to do anything else. They are trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. If they stay put how will they live? If they move, how will they find work and survive? When the storms and the floods and the illness come they may have no choices. In fact, there may be forced to leave unwillingly. We may witness a diaspora moving North searching for food and safe haven. It is possible that refugee camps would have to be set up to accommodate the large numbers?

There is also the cost of the moratorium on off shore drilling. While it may have a squelching effect on the "drill, baby, drill" mantras of the Sarah Palins and may give heart to supporters of Climate Change legislation, oil companies who've been told they can't drill will depart US waters and look for product elsewhere, like Brazil or the shores of Africa, and they wont be back soon, leaving the Gulf coast in further financial devastation and causing you cost of oil at the pump to skyrocket.

Thirty years ago the pioneering ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau reported that every square mile of the world's oceans is covered with a thin film of oil. Barely visible, if at all, but it's there. Now there will be much more of it. As the oil film increases, some say it will prevent evaporation from occurring from the sea surface, decreasing rainfall, causing droughts and water shortages. Others say what does get evaporated will come down as oil rain, coating crops and causing widespread illness. According to Philippe Cousteau, the Florida Keys, the third longest barrier reef in the world is now " a dead zone. 90% of the big fish, the tuna, the sharks and everything are already gone in the ocean. There's a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every summer the size of New Jersey where there's not enough oxygen for things to live. So it's not a question of can the oceans can take any more. The ocean can't take any more. They couldn't take any more fifty years ago."

Is it any wonder no one is talking about the future?

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