Gulf Coast Continues to Struggle...Thanks BP

Just a short three-hour drive South from Montgomery, located on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, are the towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach; home to the most beautiful beaches you will ever find with emerald green clear waters and sugar white sands.  If you are an Alabamian, this is your home away from home; a place you visit multiple times per year.  It is not unusual to experience 80-plus degree temps well into October.  Why travel to other destinations to enjoy the sun and surf when we have it right in our backyard.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach suffered a devastating blow in 2004 at the hands of a category 5 Hurricane named, befittingly, here in Alabama as “Ivan the Terrible”. The Towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach took a direct hit from Ivan as its path continued through the center of the state of Alabama.  Total estimated damage from Ivan was 20.9 billion dollars. I toured my beloved Alabama Gulf Coast area soon thereafter and words cannot describe the devastation. My only comparison would be the Tuscaloosa tornadoes but on a much grander scale. The wetlands ecosystem was altered. If there were any trees spared from the winds, they were slowly dying from the salt water spray.  Lack of sea oats, a protected species, necessary to stabilize the natural sand dunes were destroyed along with the dunes themselves; resulting in an unrecognizable flat landscape.

By 2006, our Alabama Gulf Coast had begun to mend.  Out-of-state tourists; a valuable commodity vital to the success of our gulf coast area and fondly referred to as “Snow Birds” were returning to winter in our much warmer Alabama coastal climate to escape their harsh winters farther north. Reconstruction was nearing completion, and we were overjoyed to get back to our beaches.

Then, on April 20, 2010, our gulf coast beaches were hit with yet a second devastating blow. The Deepwater Horizon Explosion; commonly referred to as The BP Oil Spill. It, tragically, killed eleven workers and at its peak flow;  spewed some 53,000 barrels of oil per day. The spill caused extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats along coastal areas from Louisiana to Alabama; not to mention the loss of jobs and income derived from commercial fishing,  tourism and seafood industries; all vital to the Alabama Gulf coast’s survival. 

I walked the Alabama beaches approximately two months after the April spill began to flow in 2010. It was sensory overload for me. I could smell the oil in the air and the chemical dispersants poured into the water to disperse the oil which now masked the sweet smell of the salty Gulf of Mexico breeze. First hand, I witnessed the large blobs of oil on the sand.  I saw the carnage of oil soaked marine life that had washed ashore, the dead or dying seagulls, sandpipers and pelicans that were no longer able to fly because of oil soaked wings.  The normal feeding pattern of the pelicans diving into the water for fish became a death sentence as they dived directly through oil slicks which quickly coated their feathers and rendered their wings inoperable.  The carnage was overwhelming and made me nauseous as I struggled to fathom the grand scale of this unprecedented disaster. How could this beach ever be refurbished? How could wildlife ever recover?  What are the long term effects of the oil and the oil dispersants to our marine life and our estuaries in Alabama’s coastal wetlands?

 

I just returned from my beautiful Alabama Gulf coast beaches; a couple of weeks after minimal tropical storm Lee had blown thru on Labor Day weekend. The water was crystal clear and emerald green, and the sands were sugar white.  The marine life was active, as I watched numerous pods of Dolphins as they played and fed. The storm surge from TS Lee had been just large enough to cause some degree of beach erosion; forming a shelf at waters edge. But our beaches appeared to be on the mend. 

After listening to the local news the first night, I soon realized the oil spill had once again reared its ugly head.  Just as we all had feared, tropical storm Lee had deposited large quantities of BP’s oil which  had been been sitting on the sea floor.  Hopefully funded by BP, cleanup crews were once again out in force cleaning up the oil; some 17 months after the initial spill.

As I began an early morning walk on the beach the next morning, I saw the evidence of oil washing ashore. The composition of the balls were different from the initial spill. They were not the wet chocolate blobs with the glistening sheen we saw immediately following the spill that floated on top of the water and were deposited onshore.  The consistency was now in the form of hardened rubber balls the size of grape fruits and embedded with shells and other debris obviously causing them to sink to the ocean floor.  As I examined it further, it almost had the consistency of a rubber tire.

It’s evident that we are not yet out of the woods.  Just how much oil is sitting on the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico and how much and how long will it continue to wash onshore.  Scientists predict that the magnitude and the potential for ecological damage are greater than anything we've ever seen in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only do scientists not know the long-term consequences of the spill on wildlife and marine life, they also do not know what health effects may be experienced by the 55,000 cleanup workers and volunteers who were exposed to the oil and the chemical dispersants.

Undoubtedly, the subject of off-shore drilling vs. land drilling will continue for years.  We all are privileged to have our own opinions.  In the aftermath of any disaster caused by man, our choice seems to be perfectly clear to us at the time… choose the alternative.  It seems clear that it’s much easier to cut off the tap on land than at 18,360 ft. below sea level, but that is just my opinion. Even better, in my opinion, are alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen, vegetable oil, algae based fuels or solar power, to name a few,  but I know with the shear mention of this to colleagues and friends, I should prepare myself for some rolling of the eyes.

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