He was right. Scientists have discovered massive plumes sweeping along 1,000 meters down, enveloping all sea life around them in a cloud of gas, oil, and a dispersant called Corexit. This chemical—manufactured by a company with corporate ties to BP—breaks the oil into smaller droplets, so fewer alarming globs show up on the beach. There are two forms of Corexit, one, 9527, slightly worse than the other, 9500. Both contain toxic petroleum solvents, but 9527 contains 2-butoxyethanol, which ruptures red blood cells. During the Valdez spill, cleanup workers who had been exposed to it and other chemicals reportedly suffered liver and kidney damage. In the current spill, it has been sprayed with abandon, dumped from planes and piped out a mile below the surface, near the sheared pipeline. BP started off with 9527, coating the sea surface and sending it sluicing across deepwater coral reefs, then deployed 9500 until the EPA demanded that the company search for a less toxic alternative. Whereupon BP produced a report saying that no safer dispersant existed. To date, more than two million gallons of Corexit have entered the food chain.

What will all of this do to the Gulf's rich marine life—its sperm whales and bluefin tuna, rare creatures that were once otherwise; or its lordly whale sharks (the planet's biggest fish) and billfish? What will it mean for the 150,000 dolphins in these waters, creatures with skin so sensitive that oil burns and blinds them? Or the large fish that keep the system in balance, the snappers, amberjack, and groupers? As the crude and dispersants flow during spawning season—how will the fragile larvae and eggs fare? And let's not even talk about sea turtles. (Hundreds of the Gulf's five resident species—all threatened or endangered before this—have already died.) No one knows what effects this unprecedented chemistry experiment might have on the region's living things, but many scientists fear the worst. The ocean's senior denizens, its magnificent predators, the toothed and the finned, the small and the humble, the ancient corals, the exquisitely adapted: At best they will suffer. At worst, they'll be gone.

During a visit to the region, President Obama told residents that "things are going to return to normal." It's hard to imagine how. After a tragedy like this one, none of us can ever be the same. But that doesn't have to be the end of this story. Human spirit is a transcendent thing, and it shines even under a blanket of heavy crude. We see it in the volunteers who have flocked to the Gulf to rescue animals and clean up beaches; the countless people who have donated money and time; the community leaders; the environmental groups; the scientists who are risking their own health to dive into the oil for answers; the collective effort to help in any way possible. For all that we've lost here, there is something we can find: the strength to get past this, the humility to fix our mistakes, and the determination to do whatever it takes to never let it happen again.

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