Nothing quite like a massive oil spill to remind us of the interconnectedness of land, water and air.
The recent breakup of the 26-year-old tanker Prestige off the Galician coast of Spain while carrying more than 20 million gallons of oil should produce effects that are both better and worse than early reports have predicted.
The good news is that although the environmental impact will be broad, it probably won't be deep. However, in a corollary of Murphy's Law, whatever is done now to improve the situation likely will make things worse.
My guess is the first bad news to come in will be that more oil has been spilled than reported originally. A lot more.
David Kennedy, director of the Office of Response and Restoration at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, has been tracking and containing oil spills for 30 years.
He said the first reports indicate that between 2 million and 3 million gallons of oil were spilled in an area extending from 3 miles to 140 miles offshore. The ship was towed on an erratic course out to sea after it was denied entry to a Galician port because it was breaking up.
"These estimates are very rough, at best," Kennedy told United Press International. "More often than not they are low, or very low. Repeatedly, on spill after spill after spill, you'll hear we lost, say, a million gallons.
"Then we start hearing it be a little more. Then we hear it could be a whole lot more." Often these upward revisions get to 10 times as much oil spilled as originally reported, he said.
The Prestige spill is being compared with the famous Exxon Valdez disaster of 10 years ago in Prince William Sound, Alaska. But terms of assessing the environmental impact of the Prestige wreck, such a comparison has limited value. The Prestige has about twice as much oil aboard, but it is a different kind of oil and has different effects, Kennedy said. These differences determine the hazards from the oil and the response effort.
The Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil, while the oil carried in the Prestige is called residual fuel oil. It is the bottom of the refining barrel, essentially what's left after the lighter hydrocarbons have been removed from crude.
It is less toxic and more viscous -- thicker and less fluid -- than crude.
"I would characterize this product as less toxic than a crude, but more persistent," Kennedy said. "The threats are more from coating and smothering seabirds or mammals than from immediate toxicity." Oil can destroy the thermal insulation in a bird or mammal coat.
Tom Grasso, U.S. director of marine conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, said his group urged the Spanish authorities not to haul the leaking ship over the shallow Galicia Bank.
"The World Wildlife Fund warned shipping authorities last week that their plan to tow the damaged vessel over the Galicia Bank was a bad idea from an ecological standpoint," he told UPI. "The Galicia bank is home to 100 species of fish, many of which occur nowhere else. There are 11 species of sharks there, some considered threatened. It is a prime spawning and feeding ground. Europe's largest population of porpoises congregate there."
Grasso added: "The way the shipping authorities disposed of the problem created an additional problem."
Malcolm Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, recently chaired a panel for the National Research Council on the risks and responses of non-floating oil spills -- the kind of spill that occurred here.
"The kinds of impacts you can expect to see are on birds that use the water surface, and on ones that go through the surface to feed," Spaulding said.
"We don't expect much toxicity, because this oil barely floats. Because it doesn't have a component that dissolves in the water (because most of the lighter hydrocarbons have been removed in the refining process), organisms that might be sensitive, like larvae and fish eggs, are not bathed in toxic dissolved carbon products."
He added: "You're likely to see much larger impacts on the interface between the air and water, but not on fish eggs and larvae, and the larger fish are likely to avoid the area."
The harm to local fauna can be catastrophic. In the Exxon Valdez spill, the death toll was 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales. Oil lingers from the spill even now. Yet despite the fatalities among individual animals, overall populations recovered between five and 10 years after the spill.
"Along the northwest coast of Spain, 200 kilometers of coastline have some amount of damage from the oil drifting into the coast," WWF's Grasso said. "About 100 kilometers of coastline in the same area have been closed as fisheries because of concern about eating fish caught in the area."
The economic impact, he said, is estimated at anywhere from $38 million to $96 million.
Kennedy said, however, that these fishing closures probably are unnecessary and an overreaction.
"It is perception problem," he said. "You've got a fishery that I would expect is minimally impacted by the product, by the oil itself. But from what I read and my experience, I can tell you pretty confidently that it will be completely shut down and will remain so for some extended period of time."
The problem isn't because the oil is contaminating the fish, he explained, "but because of public perception and the marketing problems." Kennedy added that the oil stays close to the surface, while the fish swim below it and generally are not badly affected. "The fish are not exposed, but the public is not going to buy them," he said.
The next important question is what to do about the remaining oil, the 18 million gallons or so now lying in the hulk of the oil tanker in just under two miles of water 140 miles off the coast of Spain. Proposals have been made for salvaging it or pumping it out, but the solutions could be worse than the cure.
Residual oil -- "reezid," as they call it in the oil business -- is very thick and hard to pump. It actually needs to be kept heated during shipping -- around 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- so it can be offloaded when the ship reaches its destination.
"It's relatively warm when it goes down," Spaulding said. "The tanks are pretty much intact. Whatever broke probably broke at the surface. When it ran into the seabed, those tanks may have stayed intact."
The water temperature at 3,200 meters depth will be about 36 degrees Farenheit. As the oil approaches the water temperature, it will become very viscous -- highly "unpourable," like frozen molasses.
"What do you do about it now?" he asked rhetorically. "To do anything, you've got reach it. That's along distance down in the water. And then you've got find some way of heating it, which is not a trivial problem, or put some emulsifier on it to make it more soluble in water."
As it is now, the oil can't be pumped because it is too thick. If the viscosity is reduced to make it pumpable, there would remain the problem of getting it out without substantial leakage.
"It's a very difficult problem -- if it's possible at all," Spaulding said.
He said the cost to retrieve the oil could be much higher than the environmental costs, even if you include long-term risks.
"That would lead you to a solution where, in spite of the fact that we don't like it, it might be best to leave it there," he said. "Leave it, but monitor in and around the area."
Onshore, where environmental and social impacts are being felt keenly, it also is the case that doing too much might do more harm than good. Although it seems crude and ineffective, probably the best way to deal with the onshore cleanup is with shovels and rakes and low-tech implements.
Kennedy was involved in the Exxon Valdez cleanup.
"It's almost like a war," he said, "where the best way to attack this is with the land forces, backed up by mechanization. There are not yet any devices that are universally -- or even regionally -- accepted that suck up the material, which can also take up huge quantities of sand and other material. If you do that, you can reverse the erosional and depositional component of the ecosystem."
At the Exxon Valdez cleanup site, Kennedy argued for and got some test sites established. These were areas that either were aggressively cleaned or not cleaned at all. The comparisons still are being made, he said, "But after four or five years, there was very little difference." Nonetheless, the public won't stand for a "do nothing" strategy, he said.
Ecological damage is dealt with most rapidly in areas that get high energy wave impacts, such as headlands and rocky outcrops. Much more long-term effect will be seen if the oil invades tidal flats and estuaries.
"Nature is the best force we have to really take care of the problem," Kennedy said, adding cleanup is virtually impossible after the oil meets the water.
About all modern technology can recover is 10 to 15 percent of the oil floating on the sea or on the coast line. Preventing the spill in the first place is the best defense. "Once it is out of the ship," Kennedy said. "You've already lost the battle."