The environmental damage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been well documented. Every news report on the subject is accompanied by heart-rending images of pelicans and other native creatures struggling to move under the weight of the oil slick that suffocates them. And we are now familiar with the oil-drenched landscape of the Louisiana marshes in a way that we could never have been while they were still pristine.
But it emerges that the clean-up techniques being deployed to try to combat the effects of the oil could be causing more harm than good. Earlier on in the clean-up effort, doubts were raised about the toxic nature of the chemical agents being sprayed in the area, especially in the case of an untried deepwater technique in which chemical dispersants were released underwater.
Scientists and fishermen alike were concerned that the vast quantities of the chemical Corexit 9500 pumped to the seabed could only damage the sealife of the region, as well as consitutiting a health risk to the thousands of volunteers working to clear the oil from the area.
However, the Associated Press now reports that there are further problems being caused by the clean-up effort, which has assembled 5,600 vessels in the area. The reporter Cain Burdeau observes:
Hordes of helicopters, bulldozers, army trucks, ATVs, barges, dredges, airboats, workboats, clean-up crews, media, scientists and volunteers have descended on the beaches, blue waters and golden marshes of the Gulf Coast.
As well as the harmful level of traffic and the chemical dispersants, the report highlights the "untested sand islands" now being erected on the orders of the Louisiana state governor, Bobby Jindal. However, besides preventing the oil slicks from reaching the shore, these barriers can also "interrupt shrimp and fish migrations as well as tidal flows; the work can even undermine what little is left of Louisiana's gooey and sediment-layered shoreline", according to the report.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has become more than a terrible ecological disaster; it is now a political problem of the highest magnitude. And it would seem that, in the rush to be seen to be "doing something", federal and state agencies alike are potentially causing severe long-term damage to the area.
Nonetheless, with the US midterm elections looming, short-term action, with its reassuring accompaniment of short-term political gain, remains the favoured course of action.