Editorial: Guarding the Gulf

Houston Chronicle, Jan 1, 2008


Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the richest fisheries in the world and a source of sport and recreation for millions of residents of five states stretching from Brownsville to Key West.
That watery treasure is also under attack from a number of pollution sources, including oil and gas production activities and agricultural effluents pouring down the Mississippi River into an expanding area of lifeless water known as the dead zone.
First detected in 1985, the zone is located off the river’s delta and is created on a seasonal basis by fresh water bearing nitrogen and other fertilizers that originate on Midwest farms. In recent years the zone has quadrupled in size. The chemicals in the river water trigger blooms of algae, which die and sink to the ocean bottom, providing a feast for oxygen-consuming organisms. They in turn render the water unbreathable for fish, shrimp and crabs in a process known as hypoxia.
As American farmers rush to plant more corn to take advantage of rising prices, scientists are concerned that the volume of fertilizer being dumped into the Gulf could vastly expand the dead zone. A report issued by the National Academy of Science in October warns that unless addressed by public policy and anti-pollution technology, the zone could continue to spread.
There are hopeful signs that federal environmental agencies are focusing on illegal dumping of waste products by oil and gas platform operators in the Gulf. One of them, Rowan Cos., pleaded guilty this fall for discharging pollutants and garbage into the Gulf and will pay $9 million in fines and contributions to environmental programs. Environmentalists hailed the case as an indication that regulators are focusing on small, daily pollution events rather than waiting for large spills.
As reported by Chronicle business writer Brett Clanton, an innovative effort by Louisiana and federal regulators will kick off in the New Year to prevent unlawful dumping of by-products generated during offshore drilling and production. With 15 different state and federal agencies participating, 100 field officers will pinpoint illegal dumpers and prosecute them. The program has limitations — it will only cover Louisiana coastal waters, with deep Gulf locations outside its purview. Still, it is a start that should be extended to Texas territorial waters.
The Gulf of Mexico is too precious an asset to be used as a agricultural sewer or an industrial garbage disposal. If future generations are to enjoy the same bounty that provides jobs, sustenance and enjoyment, we must take steps now to safeguard it.