Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill’s 30-Year Legacy

Piece of tar mat cut from mangrove floor in July.
Photo Credit: Wes Tunnell

By Matthew Berger
International Press Service
September 3, 2010

A surprisingly small number of scientists have studied the impacts of the oil spill resulting from the 1979 blowout at the Ixtoc I oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Wes Tunnell, who first studied the spill’s effects in July and August of 1980 and has returned many times since, is one of the few exceptions.

Days after speaking to IPS in June, he flew back to Veracruz to see what remnants, if any, are still present from the disaster – the largest accidental oil spill in history before the spill resulting from the Apr. 20 blowout at the Deepwater Horizon rig eclipsed that record this summer.

“We’re going to do a really good search to see if there’s any [oil remnants] left or if they’re all gone, just to fill in the story,” Tunnel, a biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, said in June.

Later that week, he was snorkelling in Enmedio reef, north of Veracruz, where he has watched the tar mats that settled there in 1979 slowly degrade over the decades.

“So I pretty well knew where the [tar] was,” he told IPS in a phone interview. “Instead of being a foot thick like it was back in 1979, though, it was about two inches thick.”

But when he picked up a piece in shallow water and broke it open, he could still see the shininess inside and the smell of petroleum. “It kind of surprised me. It’s kind of inert on the outer edge but you can still see or smell the petroleum on the inside,” Tunnell said.

On his next trip, in July, Tunnell went to mangrove forests along the western Yucatan – the first time he or anyone has studied the spill’s effects there since there were no roads leading to the area when the Ixtoc spill occurred, he says.

There, he found a landscape not unlike that near where the brunt of the Deepwater Horizon spill’s impact is likely to be felt. “All that open marsh just faces the open Gulf of Mexico, so it’s kind of the tropical counterpart of the eastern side of the Mississippi Delta,” Tunnell says.

After some searching, his team again found tar, about three-quarters of an inch thick, that when cut open unlocked the shininess and smell of petroleum.

What effects might these crusted-over oil remnants be having? Tunnell thinks there is no impact once several inches of shell and sand build up on the tar found in the reefs. And in the mangroves, he even observed roots “going down through where the tar was.”

But the picture may be a bit more complicated for the mangrove habitat. He describes open areas in the vegetation – an anomaly in the normally dense thicket of branches and roots.

He and his team went into one of those open areas and found something that looked like peat, “but you wouldn’t typically find that in a mangrove swamp, so I think it was probably degraded oil,” he says. Upon further searching, they found another three-quarters-of-an-inch-thick band of tar.

Without further sampling, though, it is impossible to say whether that tar is left over from Ixtoc or another, smaller, more recent spill.

Days after speaking to IPS in June, he flew back to Veracruz to see what remnants, if any, are still present from the disaster – the largest accidental oil spill in history before the spill resulting from the Apr. 20 blowout at the Deepwater Horizon rig eclipsed that record this summer.

“We’re going to do a really good search to see if there’s any [oil remnants] left or if they’re all gone, just to fill in the story,” Tunnel, a biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, said in June.

Later that week, he was snorkelling in Enmedio reef, north of Veracruz, where he has watched the tar mats that settled there in 1979 slowly degrade over the decades.

“So I pretty well knew where the [tar] was,” he told IPS in a phone interview. “Instead of being a foot thick like it was back in 1979, though, it was about two inches thick.”

But when he picked up a piece in shallow water and broke it open, he could still see the shininess inside and the smell of petroleum. “It kind of surprised me. It’s kind of inert on the outer edge but you can still see or smell the petroleum on the inside,” Tunnell said.

On his next trip, in July, Tunnell went to mangrove forests along the western Yucatan – the first time he or anyone has studied the spill’s effects there since there were no roads leading to the area when the Ixtoc spill occurred, he says.

There, he found a landscape not unlike that near where the brunt of the Deepwater Horizon spill’s impact is likely to be felt. “All that open marsh just faces the open Gulf of Mexico, so it’s kind of the tropical counterpart of the eastern side of the Mississippi Delta,” Tunnell says.

After some searching, his team again found tar, about three-quarters of an inch thick, that when cut open unlocked the shininess and smell of petroleum.

What effects might these crusted-over oil remnants be having? Tunnell thinks there is no impact once several inches of shell and sand build up on the tar found in the reefs. And in the mangroves, he even observed roots “going down through where the tar was.”

But the picture may be a bit more complicated for the mangrove habitat. He describes open areas in the vegetation – an anomaly in the normally dense thicket of branches and roots.

He and his team went into one of those open areas and found something that looked like peat, “but you wouldn’t typically find that in a mangrove swamp, so I think it was probably degraded oil,” he says. Upon further searching, they found another three-quarters-of-an-inch-thick band of tar.

Without further sampling, though, it is impossible to say whether that tar is left over from Ixtoc or another, smaller, more recent spill.

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