As BP winds down capping the oil leak and the finger-pointing intensifies to determine "who shot John" in assigning blame for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a new and highly interesting fact has come to light. The Food and Drug Administration's and the state of Louisiana's tests on shrimp and fish from the affected area have found but traces of toxic substances, posing no hazard for human consumption.
Tests have shown negligible amounts of cancer-linked polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, confirming scientific conclusions that the cancer-causing carbons in oil are quickly eliminated through metabolizing in fin fish and some crustaceans. Accordingly, while fish and shrimp have been cleared for consumption in the Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida-controlled fishing areas; oysters and blue crabs, which retain contaminants longer, remain off-limits for now.
Although this news is a welcome omen for the immediate future of the Gulf Coast economy, there are doubters among fishermen and shrimpers, as well as in the scientific and environmental communities. A University of Georgia study estimates that more than 70 percent of the oil remains unrecovered, and University of South Florida researchers suggest that the use of dispersants may have caused the oil to sink to the sea floor only to potentially resurface.
Nevertheless, the erstwhile huge oil slicks have virtually disappeared from the Gulf and, contrary to other reporting, not much is appearing in the marshes and on the beaches. According to Edward Bouwer, professor of environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and Jeffrey Short, of conservation group Oceana, as much as 40 percent of the oil may have evaporated, particularly the most toxic components because of their volatility.
Among the more positive findings regarding the disappearance of the oil are in the studies by researchers from the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They were the first to measure the positive effects of undersea bacteria feeding on the oil spill. These microscopic oil-eating bacteria have been long known to inhabit the Gulf, evolving from bacteria that feed on natural oil seeps.
The initial fear that this massive oil spill would overwhelm the bacteria's capacity to remove the petroleum hydrocarbons has been allayed by the Berkeley researchers' discovery that the bacteria thrive and multiply in the colder depths of the Gulf. They also found a high oxygen supply in the Gulf's waters, which confirmed the studies of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The multiplication of the oil-consuming bacteria and the dual findings of higher-than-expected oxygen levels (deoxygenation is harmful to plant and animal life) lends credence to government assessments that 75 percent of the oil dispersed, evaporated, burned or was skimmed. Of course, while the jury is still out on the cleanup, residual hazards, economic impact and future of drilling in the Gulf, prospects are much brighter than were anticipated in April.
Other than studying general science and geology, growing up raising crops and livestock, and experiencing the mysteries of life and health for 75 years, I claim little in the way of scientific credentials. Nonetheless, Mother Earth, as our planet is known to the "greens," has demonstrated remarkable properties of restoration and resilience in healing itself from the wounds inflicted by nature. Geologically, the planet has endured multiple ice ages and subsequent warming periods, as well as earthquakes, floods, fires, volcanic eruptions and violent winds without missing a beat.
The natural ability of microscopic life forms to eradicate oil spills and seepage indicates the Earth's restorative powers, much like the human body's capacity to heal and rejuvenate itself following illness or injury. The planet's history of metamorphosis and transformation over millions of years offers little to the theory that man can destroy or materially affect the balance of nature. The effects of centuries of war, increased population, mining, drilling and deforestation have been minimized by man's and Earth's adaptation.
In 1968, at the urging of David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, Paul Ehrlich wrote "The Population Bomb," in which he claimed "the battle to feed all of humanity is over" and predicted that by the 1980s millions would starve to death. Somehow, man and Earth adapted. That is also true in the number of species which have become extinct over centuries. While one may lament the passing of the passenger pigeon, dodo and sea cow, had there been an Endangered Species Act enforced in the Cenozoic period, we might be up to our ears in saber-toothed tigers today.
Admittedly, mankind must exercise judgment in recovering Earth's resources and conserve or replenish its inventory. However, the fears promoted by global warming enthusiasts, the anti-coal and anti-oil crowd, Earth First-ers and others relying on emotion rather than science must be balanced with reality. Earth's resources are abundant, relatively cheap and here for a purpose. The day we cease in the name of eco-psycho-babble to harvest the fruits provided us by Mother Earth is the day we begin to cease to exist.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.