OSU Wetlands Expert Says Gulf Coast Wetlands Will Naturally Recover

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A wetlands expert at Ohio State University says cleaning up the Gulf may best be accomplished by nature and time. William Mitsch [mitch] says microbes have been doing the job for millions of years. WOSU’S Sam Hendren reports


Mitsch: Wetlands are designed all the time to clean-up pollution. So I’ve argued well this is going to be the ultimate test of some wetlands to see if they can recover. Should you put oil in wetlands? No, of course not. But its going to happen. Will the wetland recover eventually? Of course it will. Its just a matter of how much time it will take for the oil to degrade or disperse or be washed out by hurricanes or whatever. It may be a long time, we don’t know. The only thing that Louisiana has going for it is that it has warm temperatures and its got lots of nutrients, some of it sent courtesy of Ohio, by the way, and the Midwestern states. And so, in that sense it may degrade faster than it would for example in Alaska with cold temperatures and no nutrients. But again, I think the wetland will recover. I think there’ll be some initial plant damage but I also think that some of the efforts people talk about where going in and scrubbing off plants and so on, you just don’t do that and you can do a lot of harm when you walk through a wetland, especially if there’s any oil on the surface.

Hendren: What is it in the environment that breaks down oil?

Mitsch: Well, microbes are out there and we’ve had oil in our biosphere for hundreds of millions of years and so there’s plenty of microbes out there who will degrade it and degrade it basically to C-O2 and water. Its their fuel source so its not unlike them degrading a dead tree. I mean, its organic matter and it will be degraded. So, they’re out there and they will of course increase gigantically in their abundance when the oil and they meet. So that’s a natural process that will occur. You don’t have to necessarily bring the microbes in. There are a lot of people that say oh I’ve got a special bug in a jar here and I’m going to bring it out and inoculate the Gulf and so on. You don’t have to do that. Nature has all these microbes everywhere and there’s probably plenty of them in the Gulf area because they’ve had oil drilling and they’ve been sloppy about it and there’s been oil in the water before down there so there’s probably a lot of the microbes that degrade oil already present in the Gulf.

Hendren: The oil well is still spewing oil and we don’t know how much eventually that’s going to be, how many gallons or barrels of oil are going to be released, any idea how long oil will be present in the Gulf.

Mitsch: No. And of course that the big question. They have to shut off the inflow, that just has to happen. So that’s properly where all the effort should be going, all the attention of whoever can help shutting off the source is paramount. Then, once you shut the source off you’re left with the oil there but at least it will start to degrade. It will start to disperse. Unfortunately, we don’t know where its going to take it. Its going to be winds, and tides and occasional hurricanes that move it all over the place and its going to be there for at least for another six months to a year even if they were to shut it off tomorrow. So that’s what we all hope and pray for that they can shut it off at the source. That’s the most important thing.