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COCODRIE, La.—The tendrils of coastline here were some of the first shores to see oil after BP's Macondo well blowout last year. On May 7, 2010—two days before the start of the annual fishing season—oil bounced off Grand Isle and flowed into Terrebonne Bay, remembers Michel Claudet, Terrebonne Parish president. In fact, oil fouled 35 percent of the U.S. Gulf Coast's 2,625 kilometers of shoreline before the spill was done.
"The people of Terrebonne are still trying to recover from the spill," Claudet says. "No one knew and we still do not know what might be the long-term effects."
The murky waters of the Mississippi River Delta obscure a profusion of life, hence the abundant local commercial and sport fishing. They also do an excellent job of hiding the long-term impacts of last year's oil spill. The oil that reached shore has been absorbed into the sponge-like wetlands or drifted to the sediment bottom, impacting shoreline that serves as a nursery for sealife, coastal habitat and a stopover for migrating birds.
"This spill is significant and, in all likelihood, will affect fish and wildlife across the Gulf, if not all of North America, for years, if not decades," warned Rowan Gould, then acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last May. "We will recover a small number of oil-covered birds. The concern is what we can't see….We may never know the spill's impacts on many species of birds and marine life, given how far offshore they are found."
Six years after Hurricane Katrina, the storm's impact is still visible throughout New Orleans, as evidenced by the emptied neighborhoods or the new houses in the Ninth Ward that resemble fresh scar tissue, easily distinguished from the former housing stock. One year after BP's oil spill, however, its impacts are largely invisible, hidden by the deep, cold waters of the Gulf and dispersed in that vast volume of water or tucked away into the endless marshes of the Louisiana coast.
A massive scientific effort is ongoing to precisely quantify the environmental damage caused by the oil spill—whether measured in oily sediments or missing generations of sealife. This is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Natural Resource Damage Assessment Process to determine what and how much BP will have to pay as well as an undertaking to understand a unique oil spill: one that happened more than 1,500 meters beneath the sea surface, spewing roughly five million barrels of oil before it was plugged.
As a result of this looming legal fight, much of what could be known about ecological impacts remains hidden. "Free and open access to scientific information concerning oil spills is not a given," noted the authors of a Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on the oil spill's ecosystem impacts last October. For example, dead dolphins that washed ashore earlier this spring have been seized by the U.S. government. "NOAA and other federal agencies came into every lab with a dolphin in the fridge and confiscated it," says Casi Callaway, baykeeper for Mobile Bay in Alabama. "All data, all studies, all work on dolphins was sequestered."