The Gulf Oil Spill, and One Lone Dragonfly

April 20, 2011

Dragonfly in Gulf Oil Spill, LouisianaOn a lovely April evening a year ago today and at 9:45 p.m., as I listened to the mating call of frogs in a nearby creek and drank in the scent of grape hyacinth in bloom, the Gulf oil spill began. Soon, we’d be watching “spillcam” with a sort of sick fascination, as thick, dark goo gushed forth from deep below the water’s surface. This iconographic photograph of a dragonfly stuck to marsh grass and smeared in oil such that it couldn’t fly, has stuck in my mind for the year. It seems to best describe the fragility of life, and the all-encompassing nature of the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill disaster. No creature large or small could escape the tarry morass. Photos of oil-drenched birds and swamps oozing oil were bad enough, but this image of a splendid dragonfly, taken at Garden Island Bay on the Gulf Coast near Venice, Louisiana was especially striking: Dragonflies are one of the fastest insects in the world. But not fast enough, in this case.

The Gulf oil spill made the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska seem like child’s play. On the night of April 20, 2010, a methane explosion killed 11 men working on the platform, injuring 17 others. A fire and explosion ensured. Before the leak was stopped, almost three months later on 15 July 2010, an estimated 4.9 billion barrels of crude oil spilled and spoiled the landscape and seascape. The spill was 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. On September 19, 2010, after the well was capped, the Feds said the well was “effectively dead.” So were a lot of other things.

Pancake Batfish

The oil spill waters contain carcinogens. The chemicals used to “disperse” the oil spill are carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic. In fact, two new species of pancake batfish were discovered last July in the area directly affected by the oil spill. Coincidence? Maybe. But it’s still creepy.

From mid-January to late March of this year, wildlife biologists counted almost 200 dead dolphins in the Gulf — 10 times more than the usual amount found during dolphin birthing season. Last month, the biologists, who had been hired as contractors by the National Marine Fisheries Service to document the unexpected deaths and to collect specimens and tissue samples, were ordered to keep their findings confidential. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) labeled the dolphin deaths as a UME (“unusual mortality event”) and put a gag order on study results; the research has now become part of a criminal investigation of the oil spill. Meanwhile, an article published in the Conservation Letters journal indicated that the actual number of mammal deaths due to the oil spill may be as much as 50 times higher than previously thought or documented.

Shrimp DinnerAnd yet on CNN today, a shrimper and a gullible reporter touted the news that a person can eat 63 pounds of Gulf of Mexico shrimp per day for five years, without incurring any oil spill-related risks. Care to try it? Dare to try it? Not me! Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and NOAA have repeatedly said that exhaustive testing has shown that “Gulf seafood is safe from oil and dispersant contamination.” (Reminds me of that old saying: “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you.”)

People in the affected areas of the Gulf Coast complain of slow restitution payments from BP. Shrimpers and other fishermen are reporting smaller harvests this spring while, at the same time, much of the nation remains reluctant to eat seafood from the Gulf.

A native American Indian tribe in Louisiana, the Pointe Aux Chenes, has had to change its diet from one based primarily on fish to one based on chicken and pork and beans. Tribe member Theresa Dardar told CNN: “It changed our way of life for sure. We’re not eating like we usually eat. . .We don’t trust the tests that the state and federal governments did.”

A strange, unknown illness, perhaps neurological in nature, has developed amongst some Gulf Coast residents. Laissez les bons temps rouler?

Learn about two new endangered species in Kentucky.

Photo credit: Gerald Herbert / San Francisco Chronicle

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