Chances slim oil spill will reach our shores

Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jun 10, 2010 - 03:42 PM

Chances are slim that oil from the current spill in the Gulf Coast will reach Gloucester and Mathews in catastrophic amounts, but the spill could still cause problems for marine animals that inhabit Virginia waters.

And if a similar spill were to occur off the coast of Virginia, the effects here could be just as devastating as those in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo: Oil spread along the Louisiana Coast.
Photo by: NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response

Oil spread along the Louisiana Coast. Photo by: NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response

Carl Hershner, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester Point, has spent years researching tidal and nontidal wetlands ecology. He said that, while normal tidal flow had "pretty much assured" that oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill would be washed ashore someplace along the Gulf Coast, it would take a particular set of circumstances for any of that region’s oil to make its way into the Chesapeake Bay.

A computer simulation developed under the auspices of the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that if oil from the spill were to get into the Gulf Stream, it would spread up the East Coast to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and then east into the Atlantic Ocean, away from the coast of Virginia.

Certain wind conditions could cause the oil to be carried back to the coast of Delaware, then south to Virginia and into the bay, said Hershner, but by the time it reached here, it would be diluted and much less toxic. The computer simulation didn’t allow for the degradation of the oil, he said.

Besides the fact that most of the hydrocarbons would have evaporated by the time it reached Virginia, the oil would have been acted on by tiny oil-eating organisms, and what would be left would be primarily tarballs.

But while the oil might not be as toxic to the environment in general, Hershner said it would still be toxic to any marine life that ingested it. Filter feeders such as whales could inadvertently ingest the tarballs, he said, and diving birds might mistake them for food and eat them.

And even if the oil never reaches the coast of Virginia, said Hershner, it could affect such marine animals as American eels and sea turtles, which cross the Gulf Stream as they swim down to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda to spawn. In addition, a lot of Atlantic Coast migratory birds go to the Gulf and could be impacted.

"There’s no way to know the extent or significance of those effects," said Hershner.

The effects of a similar oil spill off the coast of Virginia would be easier to predict. Since the environments along the Atlantic Coast and in the Chesapeake Bay are a great deal like Louisiana’s, said Hersh-
ner, "Lord knows, we’d have similar problems."

Asked what the chances would be of such an oil spill making its way into the bay, Hershner said, "Things would have to be perfectly aligned for it not to find its way ashore here."

VIMS associate professor of marine science Carl Hobbs, whose area of expertise is geology, isn’t as convinced that drilling off Virginia’s coast poses a threat. He said that clean drilling would have no effect at all on the bay, and that the most likely threat of an oil spill would come from transport of the product by ships. If a drilling project were not clean and there were a repeat of the Gulf disaster, he commented, "it’s sort of hard to say."

Water clearly flows from the ocean into the Chesapeake Bay, said Hobbs, but it tends to stay along the Eastern Shore rather than the western shorelines of Gloucester and Mathews, so chances of its reaching here would probably not be great.

Nevertheless, he said, if conditions were right and there were a strong easterly wind, oil could come this way. If that oil were "the relatively liquid stuff," he said, the two counties would have a problem.

With President Obama’s moratorium on the sale of leases off Virginia’s shoreline, any drilling is on hold until well into the future, said Hobbs. But if it eventually does happen, he said, "I hope the regulations will be stricter and better enforced."