State News

N.C. Coast Guard Cutter to depart for Gulf oil spill

Posted May 10, 2010 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated May 10, 2010 12:51 p.m. EDT

— A North Carolina Coast Guard ship has been tapped to help clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Coast Guard Cutter Elm is scheduled to depart Monday afternoon for the Gulf. The 225-foot cutter is based in Atlantic Beach, N.C. The ship is a buoy tender with a skimming system to help contain spills, a Coast Guard spokesman said. It is unclear how long the ship and its crew of 40 will be gone.

About 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands are clumped along southern Louisiana, directly in the path of oil that was still gushing Monday from a ruptured underwater well. Roughly 3.5 million gallons has escaped in the three weeks since an oil rig explosion, and some is bearing down on the marshes as workers rush to lay protective boom.

Removing oil from wetlands is a huge challenge. Bulldozers can't simply scrape away contaminated soil, as they do on beaches. Cutting and removing oil-soaked vegetation could further weaken the fragile vegetation that holds the marshes together. Absorbent materials and detergents have limited effectiveness, Graves said.

If a thick enough layer of oil coats hardy swamp grasses and shrubs, scientists say it could shut down their equivalent of breathing - absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

"You could literally suffocate the marsh," said Alex Kolker, a coastal systems specialist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

Even worse, the oil could soak into the ground and poison roots, killing entire plants. With nothing to anchor it, the soil would wash away, accelerating a process that has cost Louisiana about 2,300 square miles of coastal marshes and barrier islands the last 80 years – an area bigger than Delaware.

A spill-related loss of wetlands would ripple through the food chain they support, from tiny organisms to fish and birds.

Or the damage could be less severe and the ecosystem could survive yet again.

"It's like when you get pneumonia," Kolker said. "There's a certain amount you can handle and bounce back, and there's a certain amount that will make you miserable but you'll survive, and there's a certain amount that will kill you."

All hinges on how much oil reaches the wetlands, and how soon workers can plug the leak from the stricken well pouring at least 200,000 gallons daily into the Gulf since the rig exploded and sank April 20.