NEW ORLEANS - The oil you can't see could be as bad as the oil you can.
While people anxiously wait for the slick in the Gulf of Mexico to wash up along the coast, globules of oil are already falling to the bottom of the sea, where they threaten virtually every link in the ocean food chain, from plankton to fish that are on dinner tables everywhere.
"The threat to the deep-sea habitat is already a done deal," said Paul Montagna of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Oil has been gushing into the Gulf at a rate of 200,000 gallons a day since a drilling rig exploded last month, killing 11 people.
Yesterday, workers loaded a 100-ton, concrete-and-steel box the size of a four-story building onto a boat, hoping to lower it to the bottom of the sea by week's end to capture some of the oil and funnel the crude into a tanker. Crews also set fires Wednesday at the worst spots on the surface to burn off oil.
Scientists say bacteria, plankton and other tiny bottom-feeding creatures will consume oil, and will then be eaten by small fish, crabs and shrimp. They, in turn, will be eaten by bigger fish. The petroleum substances could kill the sea creatures or render them unsafe for eating.
Making matters worse is the leaking well's location near the continental shelf of the Gulf, where a string of coral reefs flourishes. Coral is a living creature and oil globs can kill it.
Scientists fear the slick could hitch a ride to the East Coast by way of a powerful eddy known as the "loop current," which could send the spill around Florida and into the Atlantic. The oil would then foul beaches and kill marine life on the East Coast.