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

In the case of Ixtoc, Tunnell said the U.S. and Mexican governments ceased funding research when the cleanup effort ended. He said that while Exxon was forced to fund studies, not many others in the oil industry have given money for that purpose. According to Tunnell, since the spill in April, BP has given $500 million for such studies.

"An oil spill is a big experiment that we should take advantage of. It's an opportunity -- it's a very, very sad opportunity [for] those of us who have been studying the environment and training students. ... When it occurs, it's an experiment for us to study to see what the impacts are on all aspects of the environment," Tunnell said.

BP Oil Spill: Normal Life Should Return in 5 Years

Tunnell said tourism would return to the Gulf area in about a year but that it would take five years for the beaches to recover. He did not think the shrimp industry would die, as many local fishermen have feared.

"If [the dispersants] do their job, then the process of degradation takes place faster so it may not affect the shrimp on the bottom," Tunnell said. He was not so sure about the oysters.

"That's a difficult call. That's where it gets into the oyster reefs, and that's different from the oysters on the roots of the red mangroves (in Texas). They're growing on oyster reefs that might be right up at the surface, or several feet deep. If those get heavy oil, that would be impossible to clean up," he said.

Tunnell said it will take decades for th eoil to be completely gone from all habitats.

When Tunnell returned to Mexico this month, 31 years after the Ixtoc spill, he found oil tar in the marshes. Fishermen said that the oysters still had not returned, but the shrimp catch was like it was before the blast.

"The oil went into the shorelines where oysters are and directly hit the oysters on the roots of the mangrove trees, whereas shrimp live on the bottom and oil floated primarily on the surface. And so it went onto the shoreline from there, so the shrimp probably missed the majority of the oiling," he said.

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