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Gulf Coast Ecosystem Not Recovered Two Years After BP Oil Spill

As the two year anniversary of the BP Gulf Coast oil spill looms, national attention is returning to the damages Gulf Coast environment, particularly the greatly diminished production of oysters. The Gulf Oil Spill was the worst manmade disaster in United States history and, by some reports, released over 200 million gallons of oil and an additional 200 million gallons of toxic dispersants into the Gulf Coast waters. According to reports, the Gulf Coast oyster supply is experiencing a second consecutive severely limited season, with demand nowhere close to pre-oil spill levels. Recently, BP reached a $7.8 billion dollar settlement with Gulf Coast residents and business who claimed to be damaged by the oil spill. These settlements are in addition to the $6.5 billion dollars BP has already paid out from the Gulf Coast Claims Fund.

Despite its considerably large settlements, critics note that BP has not paid a cent in compensation for its impact on the Gulf Coast ecosystem. Reportedly, the federal government will be able to pursue both criminal and environmental penalties. Some legal experts say BP may be liable for up to $60 billion to the United States government. Sources say BP is spending millions to promote Gulf tourism and spread an "all-cleaned-up" image. Further, top officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are repeatedly brought out to tout Gulf food safety.

However, according to marine scientist reports, the restoration of the Gulf Coast ecosystem is not as far along as the company would the public believe. For example, Auburn University's Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures found supposedly harmless tar balls–periodically found on Gulf beaches–teeming with bacteria. According to marine expert Ed Cake, "As long as BP's tar balls keep washing ashore on Gulf Coast beaches folks who come into contact with them and who have a compromised immune system or advanced diabetes or liver disease such as cirrhosis are at risk for contracting fibrosis through skin abrasions and lacerations–just as those who consume raw oysters with Vibrio vulnificus." Cake has also stated, "we knew when the oil spill was at its peak flow rate that V. vulnificus bacterium would proliferate because it consumed oil, but we were not aware those tar balls would continue to threaten beach goers and BP's clean-up crews that come into contact with them." According to the organization Food Safety News, Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt to live. Not all Vibrio vulnificus are pathogenic to humans, and that points to how much research still needs to be done about the Gulf's post-spill ecology.

Auburn research professor Cova Arias, who works from a Dauphin Island laboratory, warns anyone coming across a tar ball on the Gulf coast to give it a wide berth, as if were "a bad crab or something rotten on the beach." According to fourth generation oysterman Nick Collins, "there is nothing but dead shells in the Louisiana oyster beds that produced 60 to 80 sacks of oysters a day before the BP spill."

Critics feel like BP's advertisements maybe misleading the public as to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. BP, in paid television advertising since December, depicts both tourism and commercial fishing as recovering nicely. The company is paying for $179 million in tourism promotion and another $82 million in seafood testing and marketing. Individuals who are critical of BP's attempts to close the book on the oil spill point out that the herring fishery in Prince William Sound is only now beginning to recover, 22 year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and the oyster fishery in Mexico's Terminos Lagoon has not fully recovered 32 year after the 1979 Ixtoc-1 oil spill.