ATLANTA, Georgia - With engineers giving a best-case scenario of "weeks" before the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is sealed, some scientists are warning that the region's ecosystem could face major long-term damage.
As many as 70,000 gallons of oil per day have been gushing into the waters of the Gulf Coast since an oil rig operated by British Petroleum exploded on Apr. 20. The well itself is located at a depth of about 5,000 feet, presenting formidable obstacles to efforts to shut it down.
The spill is expected to ultimately eclipse the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It is not known how much oil could potentially pour into the Gulf before the leak is plugged.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says water sampling collected on May 1 and 2 along the Louisiana coast found chemicals associated with oil. "However, these results still indicate that water quality does not pose increased risk to aquatic life, such as fish and shellfish," the agency said in a statement.
"As of May 4, 2010, water sampling results off the Gulf Coast still indicate that water quality does not pose increased risk to aquatic life," the EPA said.
However, Riki Ott, a toxicologist who wrote two books about the Exxon Valdez spill, says she believes the scenario is far worse than officials are presenting to the public.
"BP is trying to say we're winning because oil has not hit the shoreline. That is far from the truth: we're losing. So much toxic oil is spilling every day, they're hammering it with dispersants, another toxic chemical," she said.
BP says it has used about 400,000 gallons of dispersant, which breaks down the oil, and has another 805,000 gallons on order.
"This dispersed oil is extremely toxic to young life forms," Ott told IPS. "BP is saying that it's not that toxic, not that much of a problem. That is extremely misleading because the only toxicity data [is based on an experiment where] they douse adult shrimp and minnows in static beakers of dispersant or oil for 48 or 96 hours, and count how many die or live."
"But young life forms are a lot more sensitive to toxic chemicals than adults," she said. "What we have in the open Gulf is a continuous exposure. The oil goes a mile down...It's in the whole water column."
She said that studies of dead herring after the Exxon Valdez spill found that parasites that normally lived in the fish's stomach had migrated into the muscle tissue to avoid toxic exposure, thus weakening its immune system and causing reproductive problems.
Some "99.9 percent of herring eggs exposed to oil died", she explained.
Ott added that the continental shelf ecosystem and open ocean ecosystem are linked very closely. "The shrimp that depend on wetlands and marshes for nurseries, when they migrate offshore, they become food for red snapper and grouper," she said.
"It's too much oil, too fast, not to have a pretty big impact on generations of wildlife that's in the water column. Birds eating shellfish getting sick and dying, marine mammals, land mammals getting sick and dying. You have birds feeding oiled fish to their chicks, the chicks have stunted growth," Ott said.
Meanwhile, families who depend on the fishing industry are seeing their livelihoods in jeopardy.
BP has been paying out up to 5,000 dollars in individual claims to fishermen and others who suffered economic losses. Ultimately, some estimates put the total figure for clean-up operations and damages at four billion dollars, although it could be even higher depending on when the leak is stemmed.
The Barack Obama administration has said BP and the other firms with some degree of liability should pick up the entire tab for the clean-up and damages. He is seeking 118 million dollars of emergency funding to deal with immediate costs related the spill, which BP would be expected to reimburse the government.
Orissa Arend of New Orleans, Louisiana told IPS most locals are still eating the fish, because 80 percent of it comes from areas not yet affected by the spill. The other 20 percent used to come from fisheries which have stopped producing for the time being.
New Orleanians are also concerned about the upcoming hurricane season.
"People are worried that next time there's a hurricane, instead of getting flooded with just water, we'll get flooded with disgusting oil water," Arend said.