School of Public & Environmental Affairs Podcast Series
The oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico was an ecological disaster of immense proportions, putting countless plants, animals, and habitats at risk. Now that the well has been capped, experts are turning their attention to cleaning up the mess.
What will the cleanup effort entail? According to SPEA wetlands experts Chris Craft, when it comes to protecting thousands of miles of marshland along the Louisiana coast, there are three main options.
“Number one is, if the marsh has water on it, it’s been oiled but there’s maybe a shallow layer of water, just a couple of inches, if you have enough oil, you burn the marsh,” Craft says. “You set the vegetation on fire, it burn the oil in the top off, but that couple inches of water protects the roots. So once the oil’s burned off and the fire is out, those plants will re-sprout.”
In the case of a dry marsh, where fire would burn the roots and destroy the plants, a better option could be adding fertilizer to stimulate plant growth and foster soil bacteria that break down oil.
It’s likely, Craft says, that much of the Gulf Coast marshland got some oil, but not too much. And in that case the best approach may be to do nothing at all. “If the concentrations are not that high, it’s better to let the microbes in nature just gradually break it down,” Craft says. “The thing about fertilization and burning is that you’re going to have some foot traffic in the marsh, so you have to be careful. Because they live right there between land and sea, they’ve survived waves and hurricanes and storm tides for thousands of years. But they’re fragile because they’re not adapted to people and animals walking on them.”
Although the Gulf of Mexico has been hit hard, the fact that the oil was spread thin over a vast area makes Craft optimistic that the damage won’t be as bad as once feared. Given time, he says, the Gulf will recover.
“Nature is resilient. If you don’t just keep beating it down it will come back. I think the wetlands will recover, but we don’t want to have another oil spill like this occur again in another year or two, or really even ever again.”
Learn more about cleaning up the BP oil spill.