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Gulf oil spill: Coast Guard's early flow estimates are released

June 3, 2010 |  6:33 pm

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The day after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, the U.S. Coast Guard evaluated the "potential environmental threat" of a spill and concluded that, in addition to 700,000 gallons of diesel from the vessel, there was an "estimated potential of 8,000 barrels per day of crude oil, if the well were to completely blow out," according to Coast Guard documents.

Two days later, Coast Guard logs included a new estimate that a full blowout could result in a spill of 64,000 to 110,000 barrels per day. (A barrel equals 42 gallons.) That's far more than current estimates of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels daily.

The Coast Guard's early appraisals were not made public, however, as BP and the Obama administration pegged the initial spill at 1,000 barrels, and then revised it to 5,000 barrels daily.

The Coast Guard logs were released Thursday by a Republican congressman, a salvo in what promises to become a partisan Washington controversy over who-knew-what-when.

"These documents raise new questions about whether the White House was slow to respond to an incident that was quickly recognized by the Coast Guard as a potentially catastrophic threat to the environment," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "Americans have a right to be outraged by this spill, by top government officials caught off-guard, and by the facts the White House omitted in explaining what it knew and when it knew it."

According to the documents, officials learned a day after the explosion that the blowout preventer, a collection of valves designed to cut off the well in the event of an accident, was not functioning. According to the documents, it could not be manually repaired by remote underwater robots.

In addition to releasing the logs to the media, Issa passed them on to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group that publicized them on its website, posting the logs and a timeline comparing the White House estimates to the Coast Guard timeline.

(UPDATE: Nicholas Shapiro, a White House spokesman, responded by email to a request for comment on the documents released by Issa: According to the email, on April 22, the day the rig sank, the President was told by National Incident Commander Thad Allen "that as soon as he saw the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire, he knew oil was likely to start gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and Secretary (Ken) Salazar told the President this event could eclipse the amount of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez.

The President made sure that the entire federal government was offering all assistance needed in the rescue effort as well as in mitigating and responding to the environmental impact and that this response was being treated as the number one priority.")

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: A boat makes its way along the edge of the oil slick about a quarter of a mile from the eastern shore of the Chandeleur Islands, part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, La., on May 5. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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