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a human, economic and environmental disaster

It was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20 that created this oil spill, the consequences of which have never been seen before. Since then, British Petroleum has tried numerous tactics to stop the oil leaking. According to BP, around 800,000 litres (approximately 5,000 barrels) of oil have been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico per day. Many scientists though believe this calculation to be a significant underestimation on BP's behalf. They are suggesting the real figure could be between 70,000 and 100,000 barrrels per day, or more than 15 million litres.

The oil spill has had a disastrous effect on fishing, which is now forbidden in large areas of the gulf. A state of emergency was declared for the fishing sector in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The White House called the oil leak the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States.

American authorities have launched civil and criminal investigations into the spill. The courts will decide if laws protecting water safety, endangered species, migratory birds and oil drilling safety have been broken. This legislation determines liability for clean-up costs and and other costs incurred by the federal state. Charges could also be brought regarding the deaths of the 11 workers who were on the oil rig when it exploded. BP has already accepted to pay 370 million euros in fines and damages in various out-of-court settlements relating to the spill.

The oil leak could last for months to come and the unprecendented nature of it means that experts assessing the damage to underwater and coastal ecosystems are unable to predict the exact scale of the disaster. The head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, recently said that the long-term effects of the spill on marine life remain unknown. Similarly, no-one knows the effect on the Gulf's food chain of the chemical dispersant used to treat the leaked oil.

For Douglas Rader, head oceanographer at the Environmental Defence Fund agency, the leak is affecting ecosystems both on the coast and far out at sea, something not seen before. The Gulf of Mexico has one of the richest supply of fish and sea-food in the world and provides around 10 billion dollars in revenue to the states around it, notably Louisiana. One study by the University of Miami suggests the spill zone has almost tripled in size in the last month and now covers 24.400 square kilometres, an area the size of Sardinia.

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