Trouble Under the Gulf Coast Sand

June 11, 2012 ~ by: The Times Picayune Staff

Beaches that looked clean after the BP oil spill harbored disturbing evidence of damage, according to researchers who dug below the surface of Dauphin Island.

Oil Fouls Grand Isle Beaches ThursdayJohn McCusker/The Times-PicayuneA crew scrapes oil off the beach at Grand Isle in May 2010. Scientists have found evidence of dramatic changes in microorganisms underneath beaches that looked clean after the spill.

What they found, according to a study published in the online scientific journal PLos ONE, was a dramatic change in the communities of microorganisms. Before the oil spill, life was rich and diverse. But the variety of life forms dropped dramatically several months after the spill and was dominated by a couple of fungal species. That was true for Grand Isle, too, which showed more visible evidence of oiling.

The change could be the result of the oil or mechanical cleaning of the beach, said Holly Bik, lead author of the study. She said additional research is needed to determine if there is a long-term effect, and there ought to be an effort to study the beaches over time.

"Even though the oil’s gone, it might lead to some very long-term and severe implications for the Gulf ecosystem,” she said.

That’s troubling and warrants continued scrutiny.