06/03/2010 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Deja vu: The Dirty Aftermath of Ixtoc 1 Oil in the Gulf

There's something to the old adage that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Sadly, we have short memories and are highly susceptible to procrastination. The following appeared on the op-ed page of the March 9, 1983 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

The aftermath of the record blowout at the Ixtoc 1 oil well in the Gulf of Mexico more than three years ago provides at least one sobering conclusion. We still haven't come to grips with the long-term impact of major oil spills on the environment.

Several months after the June 3, 1979 blowout of the well, our government scientists flocked to the south Texas Gulf Coast beaches as enormous slicks of oil drew near our shores. Observations were made before and during the time the oil washed up on South Padre Island in defiance of intensive efforts to keep the slicks offshore.

But when several massive Gulf storms occurred at the end of August and early September of that year and dispersed most of the spill's visible presence, the scientists were told by Washington to go home. Mother Nature had saved the day.

This interpretation is sure to be reinforced this month at the annual oil spill conference co-sponsored by the petroleum industry and the federal government. A scientific paper is scheduled to be delivered, which concludes that the presence of Ixtoc oil residues in Texan coastal waters is negligible, and that any dramatic decreases in marine animal populations were probably due to the impacts from the fierce early autumn storms.

What could please the oil industry more than to have its byproducts exonerated from any blame for disruption of the marine environment?

But did the elements really spare the Texas Gulf Coast from any nasty ecological impacts due to the 134 million gallons and 200-mile-long slicks spawned by Ixtoc 1?

Along the Texas coast today, whatever oil residue that remains from the Ixtoc blowout is under water or underground. But the Gulf of Mexico surf tumbling across South Padre Island beaches is not oil-free. Natural seeps and the profusion of tankers and offshore rigs give the Gulf a high concentration of oil pollution.

What is its cumulative effect on marine life? If it is gradually undermining species' healthy regeneration, we ought to know about it because the expertise exists to reduce the volume, frequency, and proximity of spills to sensitive areas.

Industry understandably has little interest in focusing on cumulative adverse pollution effects that would culminate at some distant time when liability for damages would be almost impossible to apportion.

And the federal government, whose job supposedly includes passing on a respectable legacy to future generations, will only react to crises, not seek to prevent them.

Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington D.C. and the author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, scheduled for publication at the end of the summer.