The legacy of Ixtoc
I wouldn’t say that Glenn Garvin’s look back at the 1979 Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes one more optimistic about the current prospects for recovery, but it’s at provides some useful perspective: Soto, who followed the fish and shrimp population off Mexico closely, found to his surprise that for most ...
I wouldn't say that Glenn Garvin's look back at the 1979 Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes one more optimistic about the current prospects for recovery, but it's at provides some useful perspective:
I wouldn’t say that Glenn Garvin’s look back at the 1979 Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes one more optimistic about the current prospects for recovery, but it’s at provides some useful perspective:
Soto, who followed the fish and shrimp population off Mexico closely, found to his surprise that for most species the numbers had returned to normal within two years.
"The catastrophic effects that everybody’s looking for, those are mostly limited to the first months,” he says. "Then you start looking in subsequent months, the long-range view, and it all diminishes. The pollution effect becomes more and more difficult to find …It’s like a radio signal, when you’re close, it’s strong. But when you start moving away, the signal starts to fade.”
Even the physical evidence of the spill quickly began disappearing. Tunnell has been visiting Mexico regularly for 30 years, mapping the spilled Ixtoc oil on the country’s beaches and coral reefs.
"In 1979, the islands around Veracruz looked like black doughnuts, there was so much oil clustered around them,” he remembers. "It was 12 to 15 inches thick in some places. But as I came back over the years, it got harder and hard to find. After five to seven years, it was hard to see the outline, and by 2002, an unsuspecting person would have thought it was a rock ledge … it was covered with algae and shells and just looked like a normal part of the environment.”
Even under water, where the sun can’t help the oil break down, nature subverts it, says Mexican marine biodiversity analyst Jorge Brenner. "If you visit the coral reefs in the Gulf of Campeche, the tar has been covered with sea grass, algae and sediment,” he says. "You actually have to dig a little bit to find it, although it’s definitely there.”
The bad news is that the Ixtoc spill — the worst peacetime oil spill in history — consisted of about 140 million gallons of oil after 10 months. The high-end estimates for the BP spill put it at over 100 million gallons after only three months. The Ixtoc well was also at about 160 feet under water while the BP well was nearly 30 times that. In 1979, the cleanup effort along the Texas coast got an unexpected assist from Hurricain Fredric. It’s far from certain that the Gulf will be as lucky this time.
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating
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