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Gulf Coast Oil Spill Adds ‘Insult to Injuries’ for Ocean’s Health

May 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Cleanup and wildlife rescue operations are underway on the shore as the massive oil leak spreads toward sensitive coastal wetlands along the Gulf Coast. Judy Woodruff speaks with Sylvia Earle, National Geographic's explorer-in-residence, about the disaster's effects on the fragile marine ecosystem.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now: the risks to marine life. There has been growing concern among some researchers about whether dispersants used at the bottom of the Gulf could be harmful. BP officials said today that it conducted two tests of the effect of the chemicals and it is assessing the effects.

For more now on the marine life underwater, we turn to Sylvia Earle. She is an oceanographer and explorer in residence at “National Geographic.” She was formerly chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And she has closely studied the Gulf of Mexico.

Sylvia Earle, thank you very much for talking with us.

And while we wait for the bulk of this oil to come ashore, tell us a little bit more about what is going on out in the water, on the surface and underneath. First of all, where is this oil going?

SYLVIA EARLE, oceanographer: A lot of people are focusing on the effects when the oil does eventually come ashore. But the real problem is for the ocean itself and the life that is out there.

And the dispersants, in a sense, compound that problem. They may help apparently get rid of the oil, but it really breaks it up into smaller pieces and adds additional toxins to the system. When you look at the water column, it isn’t just water. It’s filled with life, especially this time of the year, when a lot of the creatures are spawning, such as the little shrimp and other organisms that make the Gulf a living system.

I have been talking to some of my colleagues at the Harte Research Institute down in Corpus Christi. They focus on the Gulf of Mexico. And they’re really concerned about, not just the spill, but also the use of the dispersants, and I think, perhaps most of all, the complacency that so many people seem to have about what is happening in the ocean itself.

The ocean, of course, is where the action is. It is why there is life in the sea, that there — the fact that there — there is that big body of blue water. The blue heart of the planet in the ocean itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Take us into the — give us an understanding of what some of that marine life is underwater that is so vital, you were saying to us earlier today, for human life, whether you live on the seashore or anywhere.

SYLVIA EARLE: We’re all dependent on the sea. With every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, we’re connected to the ocean. It doesn’t matter whether you ever see the ocean or not. You’re affected by it. You — you’re life depends on it.

And it is that critical area from the surface down to about 300 feet where most of the action takes place, in terms of small organisms in the sea that take sunlight and generate oxygen, grab carbon dioxide, produce the beginnings of the great food chains in the sea, starting with the little microscopic organisms that then are consumed by the next level of small things, and so on up through the food chain, to creatures as large as dolphins and whales, and, of course, human beings.

The problem is that the toxins that are entering the sea and have been entering the sea from other sources now for decades, go up the food chain, concentrate the further up you go. The older and bigger fish are the ones that are accumulating the — the most of these toxins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I hear…

SYLVIA EARLE: Those are the ones, of course, that we target for eating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I hear you saying it is not just the oil itself. It is these chemical dispersants that are being used to make the oil — actually, to change the shape of the oil, the form of the oil, and to make it safer as it comes on land.

But you’re saying that may do more damage to what is underwater.

SYLVIA EARLE: Well, studies have been done on these dispersants. They’re like detergents, if you will, that break down the oils and make them seem to go away.

And what actually happens, of course, is that they take a different form, and they’re still in the ocean. And those studies that have been done in connection, for example, with the Exxon Valdez spill and elsewhere in the world, this doesn’t really the problem. It just makes the appearance of a place look better. And it keeps the oil from going into the beaches.

If the beaches are the focus of your concern, that’s a good thing. But if you’re looking at the state of the ocean and the health of the ocean, it’s not a good thing. And we all should be concerned about the health of the ocean, because our health, our lives depend on keeping the ocean in good shape.

Now, we have done so many things to the sea in the last 50 years or so, taking large quantities of wildlife out, putting large quantities of various trash and toxins into the sea. And, already, the ocean is stressed. This is just one more big insult to the injuries already felt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to quote to you something that — we had an engineer, a man named Kenneth Arnold, on the program last night, who has worked for a number of oil companies. He’s been in the oil industry all his — throughout his career.

And he said, yes, this is a terrible accident, but, essentially, he said, accidents will happen. We learn from them. We move on, and it will be safer — drilling of all kinds will be safer in the future.

SYLVIA EARLE: Well, I think that is true. I think the oil industry has learned from past experiences. And a certain kind of complacency, I think, had begun to set in, because drilling, as such, has become safer over the years, so much so that the big problems that we have experienced in recent times have been from the transport of oil, not from the drilling.

I mean, there is not a — there is no such thing as a no-impact drilling activity, but they have minimized the — the effects, and really had come to believe, many of us had, that the attention should be focused elsewhere.

But you can never put down your guard when working in extreme environments, especially depths of the sort that we’re talking about here, a mile underwater. It is really hard to — as we now are discovering, people knew in advance that this was a tough environment to — if something should go wrong, how do you fix it?

Well, precautions were taken, but not enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, thank you very much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

SYLVIA EARLE: Thank you.