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Story pick: The lasting effects of oil spills

A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

As engineers try to cap British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon blowout off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists fear the thick, crude oil that is seeping into the gulf at a rate of nearly 210,000 gallons a day will become an environmental catastrophe of unknown proportions to wetlands, shorelines, sea and wildlife, the tourism industry and the fishing and local communities.

President Obama last week called the spill "a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."

With images of oil-blackened birds again in the media and gooey brown and orange oil slicks seeping toward shore, I couldn't help but think about a previous spill, the Exxon Valdez, and wonder how, two decades later, Prince William Sound is faring after 11 million gallons of crude poured into it.

Instructive and sobering, today's Story Pick is the report, Legacy of an Oil Spill 20 years after the Exxon Valdez, put out last November by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a group of state and federally-appointed trustees formed to oversee the restoration of the ecosystem as part of the $900 million settlement with Exxon.

The environment has absorbed bigger oil spills: 36 billion gallons spilled by Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991; the estimated 140 million gallons spilled in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in 1979.

But consider this, from the report:

Visitors today experience the spectacular
scenery and wildlife of Prince William
Sound and the North Gulf of Alaska.
However, one of the most stunning
revelations of Trustee Council-funded monitoring
over the last ten years is that Exxon Valdez oil
persists in the environment and, in places, is nearly
as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill.

This was not expected at the time of the spill or
even ten years later.

About 21,000 gallons of oil remain in the Prince William Sound area, as well as lingering oil on the Kenai peninsula and Katmai coast, over 450 miles away, according to the report, and is dissipating at a rate of less than 4 percent a year.The remaining oil "will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely."

By Brigid Schulte  | May 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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