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The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 28, 2010. Around the location of the oil leak, and around the Mississippi Delta, relatively light swirls and patches appear on the ocean surface. Photograph: MODIS/NASA via Bloomberg
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 28, 2010. Around the location of the oil leak, and around the Mississippi Delta, relatively light swirls and patches appear on the ocean surface. Photograph: MODIS/NASA via Bloomberg

Now that a federal judge has ruled that BP acted in “gross negligence” in 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people, it’s a good time to ask: How bad were the environmental damages?

At that time, with news networks reserving a corner of their screens for streaming undersea video of streaming undersea oil, the projections were apocalyptic. President Barack Obama delivered an Oval Office address on June 15, 2010, in which he expressed a sentiment widely felt at the time: “Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”

Ultimately, once the final dollar amounts are tallied, it might turn out to be the most expensive one. But there are several chronic disasters unfolding around the Gulf that at least compete with the Deepwater Horizon for "worst environmental disaster America has ever faced." Sure, they're less telegenic than an open seafloor pipe flooding the Gulf with oil but they are nonetheless worth keeping in mind. Here are three:

The mouth of the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf a continent’s worth of accumulated mud. It also carries a continent of industrial waste and chemicals. Midwestern farm fertilizer in particular raises nutrient levels in the Gulf, causing plankton blooms that suck all the oxygen out of the water and leave a fish-killing “dead zone” about the size of Connecticut every year.

Second, Louisiana’s wetlands continue to disappear. Massive levy systems built in the wake of the Great Flood of 1927, and updated continually, corseted the Mississippi River. That cut off the flow of sediment to southern Louisiana, leaving the wetlands to wither.

Finally, making matters still worse, a century of the oil-and-gas industry building canals has scarred the wetlands, which are vanishing at the rate faster than a football field every hour.

Could Have Been Worse

Oiled birds, oiled beaches and surface slicks in the Gulf fill a sad, permanent place in the canon of environmental tragedy. Many communities along the Gulf shore suffered dramatic economic hits to fishing and tourism industries. Depression can spike in communities ravaged by oil spills, as it did in counties on the Gulf. Yet there are some factors that saved the spill from causing even more damage than it did.

As distressing as they were, the troubles would have been worse if nature, and spill responders, hadn't helped out. The federal government issued its estimates of what happened to the oil in November 2010. About a quarter evaporated or dissolved in the ocean. More than 40 percent was either recovered at the surface, burned, skimmed off or scattered with chemical treatment. Another 13 percent dispersed naturally.

Studies since 2010 have investigated pervasive damage to deep water and coral ecosystems. Any harm is too much, but the ocean, it turns out, is a powerful thing and helped carry away much of the undersea oil plume.

Yesterday's ruling is a landmark, but legal fights over the Deepwater Horizon may go on for years. So too will these slow-burning Gulf disasters -- and the biggest one of all.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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