....you know, the one the media compels you to drone on an on about
around the water cooler?
They are taking advantage of your programmed weakness.
The more shrill the weakness the louder the volume and the less that
History is your friend.
The Ixtoc 1 oil spill in Mexico's shallow Campeche Sound three decades
ago serves as a distant mirror to today's BP deepwater blowout, and
marine scientists are still pondering what they learned from its
In terms of blowouts, Ixtoc 1 was a monster — until the ongoing BP
leak, the largest accidental spill in history. Some 3.3 million
barrels of oil gushed over nearly 10 months, spreading an oil slick as
far north as Texas, where gooey tar balls washed up on beaches.
Surprisingly, Mexican scientists say that Campeche Sound itself
recovered rather quickly, and a sizable shrimp industry returned to
normal within two years.
Luis A. Soto, a deep-sea biologist, had earned his doctorate from the
University of Miami a year before the June 3, 1979, blowout of Ixtoc 1
in 160 feet of water in the Campeche Sound, the shallow, oil-rich
continental shelf off the Yucatan Peninsula.
Soto and other Mexican marine scientists feared the worst when they
examined sea life in the sound once oil workers finally capped the
blowout in March 1980.
"To be honest, because of our ignorance, we thought everything was
going to die," Soto said.
The scientists didn't know what effects the warm temperatures of gulf
waters, intense solar radiation, and other factors from the tropical
ecosystem would have on the crude oil polluting the sound.
There were political implications as well; the spill pitted a furious
shrimping industry, reliant on the nutrient-rich Campeche Sound,
against a powerful state oil company betting its future in offshore
drilling, particularly the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico it
began developing in the late 1970s.
In the months after Ixtoc 1 was capped, scientists trawled the waters
of the sound for signs of biological distress.
"I found shrimp with tumor formations in the tissue, and crabs without
the pincers. These were very serious effects," Soto said.
Another Mexican marine biologist, Leonardo Lizarraga Partida, said the
evaluation team began measuring oil content in the sediment,
evaluating microorganisms in the water and checking on the biomass of
As the studies extended into a second year, scientists noticed how
fast the marine environment recovered, helped by naturally occurring
microbes that feasted on the oil and degraded it.
Perhaps due to those microbes, Tunnell found that aquatic life along
the shoreline in Texas had returned to normal within three years —
even as tar balls and tar mats remained along the beaches, sometimes
covered by sand.
"We were really surprised," Lizarraga said. "After two years, the
conditions were really almost normal."
The Gulf currents and conditions of the Ixtoc 1 spill helped. Unlike
the BP blowout, which has spewed at least 5,000 barrels of oil a day,
and perhaps many times that, at depths near 5,000 feet, the Ixtoc 1
oil gushed right to the surface, and currents slowly took the crude
north as far as Texas, killing turtles, sea birds and other sea life.
"I measured 80 percent reduction in all combined species that were
living in the intertidal zone," said Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist
at the Harte Research Institute of Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M
University in Corpus Christi.
While that was severe, Tunnell noted that natural oil that seeps from
the seabed releases the equivalent of one to two supertankers of crude
in the Gulf of Mexico each year.
"It's what I call a chronic spill," Tunnell said. "The good side of
having all that seepage out there is that we've got a huge population
of microbes, bacteria that feed on petroleum products in the water and
on shore. So that helps the recovery time."
An expert on the biodegradation of petroleum, Rita R. Colwell, who
holds posts both at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins
University, said microorganisms are good at breaking down the short
chain molecular compounds in crude.
"For the bacteria, they really chew it and release it as CO2," Colwell
said. "The longer stuff that has long ring compounds, that's the stuff
A bloom in oil-consuming microorganisms turned out to be a boon to
shrimp in the Campeche Sound, to the relief of the crews on the 650
shrimp boats that trawled in the sound back then.
"The shrimp fed on the bacteria. When you are making the chemical
analysis of the shrimp, you obtain the fingerprint," Soto said, adding
that petroleum compounds contain unique chemistry just as flora and
fauna contain unique genes.
Just as a human body rallies its defenses to fight off invasive germs,
Soto said, the microorganisms prevalent in warmer ocean waters help
break down the crude.
"What we learned is that tropical environments have a better chance to
recover equilibrium," Soto said, adding that he believes the Campeche
Sound was largely back to normal "perhaps in a year and a half."
Crude oil does contain toxic compounds, known as polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons, which aren't easily absorbed by bacteria. Scientists are
still studying whether bacteria can be cultivated to break down them
"Fortunately, they don't bio-magnify in species as they go up the food
chain. They seem to just get passed through and dropped out," Tunnell
Colwell, nonetheless, warned of eating shrimp harvested in the
immediate area of an oil spill: "If you are eating shrimp during the
current season or next season, I wouldn't recommend it."
Lizarraga, who works at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher
Studies of Ensenada, on the Baja California peninsula, criticized the
heavy use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil gushing from the
BP spill into droplets, saying it isn't yet clear how the dispersants
will affect the oil-degrading microorganisms.
In the Ixtoc 1 spill, "not so many dispersants were used," he said,
allowing natural processes to take their course.
Some fundamental questions remain about the volumes of oil that
microorganisms can break down in an oil spill. Tunnell said long-term
comprehensive studies are rarely carried out after workers finish
mopping up crude oil coating beaches.
"When its cleaned up, the studies stop," he said. "There's a lot that
we don't have the real answers to."