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Jun 5, 2010 10:14 PM by Chris Welty

Gulf Oil Spill's Threat to Wildlife Turns Real

ON BARATARIA BAY, La. (AP) - The wildlife apocalypse along the
Gulf Coast that everyone has feared for weeks is fast becoming a
terrible reality.
Pelicans struggled to free themselves from oil thick as tar that
gathers in hip-deep pools, while others stretch out useless wings,
feathers dripping with crude. Dead birds and dolphins have washed
up onshore, coated in the sludge. Seashells that once glinted
pearly white under the hot June sun are stained crimson.
Scenes like this played out along miles of shoreline Saturday,
nearly seven weeks after a BP rig exploded and the wellhead a mile
below the surface began belching millions of gallon of oil.
"These waters are my backyard, my life," said boat captain
Dave Marino, a firefighter and fishing guide from Myrtle Grove. "I
don't want to say heartbreaking, because that's been said. It's a
nightmare. It looks like it's going to be wave after wave of it and
nobody can stop it."
The oil has steadily spread east, washing up in greater
quantities in recent days, even as a cap placed by BP over the
blownout well began to collect some of the escaping crude. The cap,
resembling an upside-down funnel, has captured about 252,000
gallons of oil, according to Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the
government's point man for the crisis.
If earlier estimates are correct, that means the cap is
capturing from a quarter to as much as half the oil spewing from
the blowout each day. But that is a small fraction of the 23
million to 47 million gallons government officials estimate have
leaked into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion that killed 11
workers, making it the nation's largest oil spill ever.
Allen, who said the goal is to gradually raise the amount of the
oil being captured, compared the process to stopping the flow of
water from a garden hose with a finger: "You don't want to put
your finger down too quickly, or let it off too quickly."
BP officials are trying to capture as much oil as possible
without creating too much pressure or allowing the buildup of
ice-like hydrates, which form when water and natural gas combine
under high pressures and low temperatures.
President Barack Obama pledged Saturday in his weekly radio and
Internet address to fight the spill with the people of the Gulf
Coast. His words for oil giant BP PLC were stern: "We will make
sure they pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf
coast."
But his reassurances offer limited consolation to the people who
live and work along the coasts of four states - Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida - now confronting the oil spill
firsthand.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., boardwalks leading to hotels were tattooed
with oil from beachgoers' feet. A slick hundreds of yards long
washed ashore at a state park, coating the white sand with a thick,
red stew. Cleanup workers rushed to contain it in bags, but more
washed in before they could remove the first wave of debris.
The oil is showing up right at the beginning of the lucrative
tourist season, and beachgoers taking to the region's beaches
haven't been able to escape it.
"This makes me sick," said Rebecca Thomasson of Knoxville,
Tenn., her legs and feet smeared with brown streaks of crude. "We
were over in Florida earlier and it was bad there, but it was
nothing like this."
At Pensacola Beach, Erin Tamber, who moved to the area from New
Orleans after surviving Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, inspected
a beach stained orange by the retreating tide.
"I feel like I've gone from owning a piece of paradise to
owning a toxic waste dump," she said.
Back in Louisiana, along the beach at Queen Bess Island, oil
pooled several feet deep, trapping birds against unused containment
boom. The futility of their struggle was confirmed when Joe
Sartore, a National Geographic photographer, sank thigh deep in oil
on nearby East Grand Terre Island and had to be pulled from the
tar.
"I would have died if I would have been out here alone," he
said.
With no oil response workers on Queen Bess, Plaquemines Parish
coastal zone management director P.J. Hahn decided he could wait no
longer, pulling an exhausted brown pelican from the oil, the slime
dripping from its wings.
"We're in the sixth week, you'd think there would be a flotilla
of people out here," Hahn said. "As you can see, we're so far
behind the curve in this thing."
After six weeks with one to four birds a day coming into
Louisiana's rescue center for oiled birds at Fort Jackson, 53
arrived Thursday and another 13 Friday morning, with more on the
way. Federal authorities say 792 dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins
and other wildlife have been collected from the Gulf of Mexico and
its coastline.
Yet scientists say the wildlife death toll remains relatively
modest, well below the tens of thousand of birds, otters and other
creatures killed after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's
Prince William Sound. The numbers have stayed comparatively low
because the Deepwater Horizon rig was 50 miles off the coast and
most of the oil has stayed in the open sea. The Valdez ran aground
on a reef close to land, in a more enclosed setting.
Experts say the Gulf's marshes, beaches and coastal waters,
which nurture a dazzling array of life, could be transformed into
killing fields, though the die-off could take months or years and
unfold largely out of sight. The damage could be even greater
beneath the water's surface, where oil and dispersants could
devastate zooplankton and tiny invertebrate communities at the base
of the aquatic food chain.
"People naturally tend to focus on things that are most
conspicuous, like oiled birds, but in my opinion the impacts on
fisheries will be much more severe," said Rich Ambrose, director
of the environmental science and engineering at program at UCLA.
The Gulf is also home to dolphins and species including the
endangered sperm whale. A government report found that dolphins
with prolonged exposure to oil in the 1990s experienced skin
injuries and burns, reduced neurological functions and lower
hemoglobin levels in their blood. It concluded, though, that the
effects probably wouldn't be lethal because many creatures would
avoid the oil. Yet dolphins in the Gulf have been spotted swimming
through plumes of crude.
Gilly Llewellyn, oceans program leader with the World Wildlife
Fund in Australia, said she observed the same behavior by dolphins
following a 73-day spill last year in the Timor Sea.
"A heartbreaking sight," Llewellyn said. "And what we managed
to see on the surface was undoubtedly just a fraction of what was
happening."
The prospect left fishing guide Marino shaking his head, as he
watched the oil washing into a marsh and over the body of a dead
pelican. Species like shrimp and crab flourish here, finding
protection in the grasses. Fish, birds and other creatures feed
here.
"It's going to break that cycle of life," Marino said. "It's
like pouring gas in your aquarium. What do you think that's going
to do?"

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