Oil spill needs long-term look

BY DIANE M. CALABRESE | Baltimore, MD | January 29, 2001


Only long-term assessments will show the real extent of damage from this month's oil spill in the Galapogos Islands, according to environmentalist groups.

At least some damage was averted when a wind shift pushed the oil, which was leaking from the partially sunken tanker Jessica, away from the shoreline.

"It definitely could have been worse," said Christopher Bailey, public affairs coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Yarmouth Port, MA. The wildlife death toll includes 30 pelicans, four sea lions, and seven blue-footed boobies, a loss to be sure, but not a staggering one. Even so, Bailey emphasizes "the real assessment" is one that takes time.

Ecuador's Galapagos Islands straddle the equator 600 miles west of the mainland. They are home to giant tortoises, iguanas, penguins, and flightless cormorants (large pelican-like birds). The entire 15-island, 3,000-square-mile area is designated a nature reserve. Today, scientists and eco-tourists compete for opportunities to visit the well-known destination.

"We're definitely concerned about the islands and the wildlife," said IFAW's Bailey. "Animals can be traumatized [by contact with oil]. They need to be able to rest."

Bailey explains it is not enough for helpful humans to remove oil from an animal. The animal has to have time to re-equilibrate before it is released to the wild. "We set up a rehabilitation center and a stabilization center," said Bailey.

The Jessica, which ran aground less than one-half mile from the shore of the island San Cristobal, carried more than 240,000 gallons of diesel and bunker fuel. Conservative estimates put the amount of oil that has leaked into the water at less than 150,000 gallons. Other projections suggest nearly all the oil entered the water.

The amount is "significant" in either case said Wayne G. Landis, the director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry at Western Washington University, Bellingham. Landis has done risk assessment for Valdez Alaska.

Type of oil determines what happens when it hits water. For example, crude oil is able to "vaporize, float or mix into the water," said Landis. Vaporization hastens the removal of oil from water and is largely a good thing. Videos of birds and sea lions coated with oil paint a vivid picture of one way floating oil causes trouble.

More problems stem from oil that mixes with water. "[It] will impact algae and copepods," said Landis. In turn, the food chain-the fish that eat the tiny plants and hard-shelled animals-will be affected, and then, the birds that eat the fish.

"What happens long-term depends on where the oil goes," said Landis. "The open ocean is like a desert." The oil cannot do much damage if it mixes with the water column there.

In places where there is a rich flora and fauna, outcomes are different. Crude oil is toxic at less than one ppm (part per million) in water.

Landis uses chaos theory to study the dynamics of ecological systems. And he points to one certainty about the Galapagos Islands after the spill. "The [affected areas] are never going to go back 'home again,'" said Landis. Over time, changes that are "subtle" will occur and they will cause other changes.

The balance has shifted. 'How much' is something that must be assessed in the long-term.

In response to the Galapagos spill, the IFAW will change the focus of a scheduled meeting on Cape Cod in February. "We are going to talk [about the spill]," said IFAW's Bailey. He sees the meeting as a good opportunity to "educate the public."

Education and preparedness earn high marks from scientists and environmentalists in many quarters. Michael S. Bruno, a professor of ocean engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, has worked with the U.S. Coast Guard on oil spills. Although he has not been involved in the Galapagos clean-up, Bruno explains the importance of being ready to undertake remediation.

"A major challenge-even in our country, is the position of the necessary resources and personnel in spill-prone or spill-sensitive areas," said Bruno. Strategic positioning makes it possible for "clean-up efforts to begin quickly following a spill."

"Clean-ups do really help," said Bruno. "[Many of the natural] processes that transport and re-work the oil, [such as volatilization], are usually well underway before clean-up efforts can be mobilized -- even in densely populated areas... [Still,] chemical dispersants, surface booms and oil skimmers, as well as biological agents can be used to great advantage to protect environmentally-sensitive areas and help speed recovery of impacted areas."

Being prepared for oil spills goes beyond having an arsenal of oil removing tools, chemicals and helping hands at the ready. It also extends to information.

Poojitha Yapa, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY, has developed oil spill models for more than 15 years. His models help oil spill fighters figure out which way oil is going and how fast.

"The earlier the model is used, [the more likely to realize] the maximum benefit," said Yapa. "It is all in the decision making."

Yapa explains his models have the potential to incorporate "lots of data." Yet most of the time, there is a limit to the amount of data available.

There are four key variables in predicting the course of a spill. "Generally, [we] need wind speed [and] direction," said Yapa, "water current, temperature--warmer water means more oil will evaporate, and the characteristics of the oil." Yapa points out that determining wind speed and direction are "still not an accurate science."

In the instance of the Galapagos, the quick shift--unanticipated--in trade winds proved a good thing. In a different situation, a wind shift could have negative consequences. Hence, even with an oil spill, preparedness helps to mitigate the effects of a disaster.

So does cooperation. "[The response] is a fabulous example of global community," said IFAW's Bailey. "Persons coming together."


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