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Gulf Oil Spill

Remaining Gulf Spill Still Bigger Than Exxon Valdez

Aug 5, 2010 – 7:07 AM
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Laura Parker

Laura Parker Contributor

(Aug. 5) -- On Day 107, it seemed the news from the Gulf of Mexico couldn't be better. Not only did BP's "static kill" finally seal its runaway well, but then came a report that most of the spilled oil has vanished.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists announced that 74 percent of the oil that escaped BP's Macondo well had either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, siphoned into ships from the wellhead, or broken up by a chemical dispersant released into the Gulf by BP. The White House expressed a "high degree of confidence" in the findings.
Remaining Gulf Spill Still Bigger Than Valdez
NASA / AP
Despite a report that much of the oil in the gulf has vanished, there's still nearly 53 million gallons of it -- nearly five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, which wreaked environmental havoc in Alaska in 1989.

But in the parishes on the sole of Louisiana's boot, where they have battled BP, government bureaucrats, oil, bad weather and recalcitrant equipment every day since the oil first began slithering into the marshes in May, the news of the disappearing oil was greeted with skepticism -- and fresh worries.

"If only 25 percent of the oil is left, it must be all in St. Bernard Parish, because we're finding new oil every day," parish president Craig Taffaro told AOL News.

There's also this simple math: If NOAA's numbers are right, that still leaves 1 million barrels of oil at large. On its own, that amounts to a spill four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound -- the worst in U.S. history, until the Deepwater Horizon disaster easily topped it.

While BP and the Obama administration declared belated victory, Taffaro and the other coastal parish leaders remain focused like lasers on two things as the oil spill enters the next phase: One, making sure BP sticks around long enough during the weeks and months ahead to finish the cleanup. And, two, finding a way to convince the buying public that Gulf seafood caught after April 20 is safe to eat.

Last week, BP's incoming CEO, Bob Dudley, announced from Biloxi, Miss., that the time has come to scale back the cleanup campaign. He stressed that no one should interpret his remarks as a signal that BP is gearing up to pull out.

In Plaquemines Parish, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has scheduled a town hall meeting today in Buras, La. to discuss the long-term recovery plan.

Gov. Bobby Jindal wants BP to fund a 20-year study of seafood safety in the gulf. On Monday, he expanded his request and asked BP to finance a five-year monitoring plan and increase test sampling.

As far as the vanishing oil is concerned, parish politicians aren't the only skeptics. Samantha Joye, a marine scientist at the University of Georgia, told Bloomberg News that she finds it "hard to believe, impossible, actually, that they have three-quarters of the oil accounted for."

The figures for the disappearing oil break down like this:
  • about 25 percent evaporated or dissolved
  • about 17 percent captured at the wellhead
  • about 8 percent skimmed or burned off
  • about 8 percent broken down by chemical dispersants
  • about 16 percent dispersed naturally in the water

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, said in a statement released with the report that the disappearance of the oil does not mean that "there isn't oil still in the water column or that our beaches and marshes aren't still at risk. Knowing generally what happened to the oil helps us better understand areas of risk and likely impacts."

Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental scientist with long experience studying oil spills, served as one of the independent scientists consulted by NOAA. He said he shared his knowledge about spills, but was not involved in calculating the percentages.

"Everybody seems skeptical," he told AOL News. "But I don't think it's too far off."

He said he thinks most of the oil that's left in the water is in the deep ocean. "I would be flabbergasted if there is significant new oiling coming ashore," he said.

"The oil is down in the deep abyss, if you will. That doesn't mean it's lurking and is going to pop out of the closet and get us. Water circulation down there is not conducive to it coming up. Water in the abyss stays down in the abyss."

Whether or not the oil remains in the abyss, whether or not NOAA's calculation holds up, Taffaro won't be satisfied until every drop is dealt with. "For some reason, we went from saying that any oil is unacceptable to whatever is left is OK," he said. "I am here to tell you it is not OK."
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