Ixtoc Revisited: '79 Cleanup, Recovery Can Inspire Gulf Community

In 1979, the collapse of the Ixtoc 1 rig emptied about 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Two months after the explosion, the oil landed on Padre Island, Texas. There was a strip 170 miles long and 30 feet wide -- it looked like a paved highway.

Many in San Padre thought the area would never recover, but it did.

"To my amazement, we saw recovery right away in some places. But in others, we can still see evidence. The shrimp came back in about two years," said Wes Tunnell, a marine biologist, ecologist and self-described optimist, who has studied the impact of oil spills for decades.

Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for the latest on the oil spill tonight on ABC.

Tunnell says that the same could happen to the areas affected by the BP oil spill in April although it will likely take a little longer.

"The Gulf of Mexico is a hugely resilient body of water. There's the equivalent of one to two supertankers per year that seep into the Gulf of Mexico waters naturally. It populates the entire Gulf of Mexico with petroleum-eating bacteria. There's lots of them out there munching away on this oil all the time," Tunnell said.

"The difference in the northern Gulf of Mexico beaches is that their energy, their wave energy, is less than it is on the Texas coast. The wave energy helps in breaking the sand and the oil that's there. ... I think that's going to take place a little slower in Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida where the oil is on the beaches. So three to four years but it will recover," he said.

Tunnell said it surprised him and the Ixtoc spill cleanup crews that 2 1/2 years after the explosion, the area had recovered well.

"For most of us, it was the first major spill to deal with, we were just flabbergasted. As I see my colleagues today in the northern Gulf of Mexico that see all the oil coming in, that 'oh no, this place is going to be wiped out for years, decades or maybe forever.' That was our concern then but we were equally amazed at what happened to 140 million gallons of oil," Tunnell said.

Oil Spills: A Glance at History

In 1967, the Torrey Canyon tanker spilled 36 million gallons of oil off the coast of England. To burn the oil, the Royal Air Force dropped 161 bombs and 3,000 gallons onto the slick. It was the world's first massive oil spill.

"They didn't even dilute [the chemicals]," Tunnell said.

Forty-three years later, the consequences of that disaster are still evident. In a quarry, where all the oil from the Torrey Canyon was dumped, animals are still dying.

In America's first major spill, in 1969, 4 million gallons of oil washed ashore in Santa Barbara after a platform blowout.

"It was really the wake-up call," Tunnell said of the Santa Barbara oil spill. "Earth Day actually started because of this."

In Massachusetts' Buzzard's Bay, where there have been close to 10 major oil spills since the 1940s -- the most recent occurring in April 2003 -- scientists have found that the fiddler crab is chronically impaired, seemingly drunk on oil.

And in Alaska, where the 1989 Exxon Valdezoil spill released close to 11 million gallons of crude, the herring population still has not fully recovered. Twenty-one years later, a thick, oily residue can be found in much of the rocky coast of Prince William Sound and more than 21,000 gallons of oil infest the shore.

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