The massive undersea gusher caused by the explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig has spewed oil nearly unabated into the Gulf of Mexico for 36 days now. And unless BP’s risky “top kill” procedure successfully seals the well, what currently could be the one of the top ten spills of all time will certainly achieve that dubious distinction.
The environmental impact of the spill will be catastrophic. Oiled birds have already washed ashore and more are expected. Fish are swimming through the oil-and-dispersant plumes that are roaming beneath the surface. And worst of all, oil is now entering the Gulf Coast’s fragile wetlands. Removing the tar-like substance will be difficult at best. Wetlands soils would swallow heavy machinery, and the vegetation would take years, maybe decades, to bounce back depending on how crews attempt to remove the oil. Currently, the feeble clean-up efforts are costing BP $33 million a day at last estimate—and without any substantial wetland damage so far, they have gotten off easy.
The spill’s environmental damage is already hammering the Gulf Coast’s economy. Tourism, estimated to be worth more than $100 billion annually to the region, is hurting. Cancellation rates in Mississippi are almost 50 percent, and some vacationers are axing their trips to Florida three months in advance. Captains for fishing charters are also reporting cancellations and lower booking rates.
Commercial fishing has also taken a hit. Even though the industry represents a small portion of the Gulf’s total economic output, it is a culturally significant vocation in the region. Over 20 percent of the federal waters open to fishing in the Gulf Coast area have been closed because of the spill. What’s more, if the oil creeps into the estuaries that feed the Gulf, breeding grounds for the fish that prop up the industry will be poisoned.
Early estimates pegged the total economic loss at $1.6 billion, but that figure was calculated assuming the oil would not reaching the loop current. If it does, the toxic sludge would be carried to the Atlantic Ocean and up the eastern seaboard.