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Gulf oil spill: Most of the oil remains

August 19, 2010 |  4:52 pm

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a controversial “oil spill budget” Aug. 2 estimating that a large part of the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon spill was gone. But in a hearing on Capitol Hill, a NOAA official conceded that three-fourths of the pollutants from the 4.1 million barrels spewed into the gulf are still lingering in the environment.

Bill-lehr-noaa Bill Lehr, senior scientist with NOAA’s Office of Restoration and Response, said booming and burning probably cleaned up only about 10% of the spilled oil.  Much of the oil has evaporated or dispersed, but remains a source of hydrocarbons in the ecosystem, he said.

 “This is a continuing operation,” Lehr emphasized. "The spill is far from over. We’re beginning a new phase, and NOAA and all the other agencies will be involved in this.”

“We have seen some premature celebration,” said Rep. Edward Markey, (D-Mass.), who convened the House Energy and Environment subcommittee hearing.  “What we have learned today is that the oil is not gone. The oil remaining in the Gulf waters or washed up on the shore is equivalent to 10 Exxon Valdez spills, and could be much more.” 

The report released recently by NOAA and the Department of Interior -- in which the agencies said the “vast majority” of the oil had been either recovered, dispersed or evaporated --  rendered more optimistic figures because it counted as recovered the 800,000 barrels of oil captured directly by ships, Lehr conceded  under questioning by Markey.

He said agency scientists also have not tallied the significant quantities of methane gas and heavy metals released into the gulf as a result of the spill.

If only 10% of the spilled oil was actually recovered, that is equivalent to the 10% to 15% recoveries scientists estimated were possible from a major spill at the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, Markey noted. “So it seems to me that BP comes in only at the low end of what was possible 20 years ago.... I think it’s important that even using a 21-year-old grading system, that BP has done a very poor job in cleaning up the gulf.”

Lisa Suatoni, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, added in her testimony:  “We understand that the government wants to turn the corner and wants to signal that the gulf is on its way to recovery. However, the facts simply do not bear that out. There is still a huge amount of oil in the environment." 

Scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration said they are confident that seafood coming from the newly opened areas of the gulf is safe to eat. Testing for hydrocarbons and residuals from the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants used to break up the oil showed no dangerous contaminants, they said.

In tests of 500 shrimp and crabs for exposure to the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are one of the most dangerous elements in crude oil, all showed levels “below levels of concern” by a factor of 500 to 1,000 — “essentially similar to prior to the oil spill,” said Donald Kraemer, acting deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

In testing of 3,000 water samples, only two showed signs of dispersant. Moreover, all dispersants used when tested directly showed up as non-toxic or slightly toxic, and in combination with crude oil, no more toxic than the oil itself, which is considered moderately toxic, said Paul Anastas, an assistant EPA administrator.

-- Kim Murphy in New Orleans

Photo: Bill Lehr of NOAA. Credit: Chip Somodeveilla / Getty Images

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