Damage from the spill: How much?

Marsh grasses matted by oil are still a common sight on the gulf coast here, but so are green shoots springing up beneath them. In nearby bird colonies, carcasses are still being discovered, but they number in the thousands, not the tens of thousands that have died in other oil spills.

And at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the zone of severely oxygen-depleted water that forms every summer has reappeared, but its size does not seem to have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill.

How much damage resulted from almost five million barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico is still being toted up in laboratories and government offices. It will be some time before the government releases its formal assessment of the effects – one that will define the scope of environmental restoration required by BP, Deepwater Horizon’s operator, and other companies.

Separately, scientists are arguing heatedly about how fast a large plume of dispersed oil more than a half-mile below the surface of the gulf is breaking down and how great a threat it poses to sea life.

Yet as the weeks pass, evidence is increasing that through a combination of luck (a fortunate shift in ocean currents that kept much of the oil away from shore) and ecological circumstance (the relatively warm waters that increased the breakdown rate of the oil), the gulf region appears to have escaped the direst predictions of the spring.

While its findings were disputed by some, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported several weeks ago that the oil was breaking down and dispersing rapidly, probably limiting future damage from the spill. And preliminary reports from scientists studying the effects on marshes, wildlife and the gulf itself suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared – less, in fact, than the destruction from the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. The scientists caution that much remains unknown, and that oil spills can have subtle effects that last for decades.

Leslie Kaufman and Sheila Dewan

Not the deadliest  catch

King crab fishing in the Bering Sea is dangerous business, but it is not the deadliest catch. Commercial fishing is, by almost any measure, the most dangerous profession in the United States. And the most dangerous fishing ground is the Northeast Coast, where fishermen go after groundfish – the bottom-dwelling species like flounder, sole and cod.

Nicholas Bakalar
New York Times News Service