Is the News Coming From the Gulf Too Good To Be True? Unfortunately, Yes
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Over the past week, the headlines about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have been good. After months of oil pouring into the Gulf, at last the well was capped. Even better, experts cited a recent document from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing that 75 percent of the oil is gone. As the good news flowed and the oil no longer did, government officials made optimistic remarks to the press about the situation. "The vast majority of the oil has been contained, it's been burned, it's been cleaned and that's good news for the people of the Gulf," White House Energy Adviser Carol Browner cheerfully reported recently. "Mother Nature will do her part, but we'll continue to be vigilant."
Disaster Response Chief Thad Allen added, "We're finding less and less oil as we move forward." In addition, the EPA has announced test results showing that a combination of dispersants and oil are no more toxic than the oil itself. To celebrate, President Obama himself dined on Gulf seafood for his birthday. Is the news too good to be true?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. If Thad Allen is struggling to find the oil, it's because it's harder to find, not because it's gone. A look at the actual NOAA document tells a very different story about the location of the estimated 4.9 million barrels (more than 200 million gallons) of oil discharged from the well between the time of the blowout and July 14, when the well was capped. BP recovered a little over 800,000 barrels (16.8 percent of the total amount discharged), preventing it from ever entering the Gulf. Additionally, 3.4 percent of the oil was skimmed. That leaves just over 3.9 million barrels of oil still in the Gulf. An additional 30.6 percent evaporated, dissolved, or was burned. While that may have removed it from the water, it polluted the air instead. Another 23.8 percent was dispersed, naturally or with chemical dispersants. Dispersed or not, this is oil that is still present in the Gulf. Add that to the estimated 25.4 percent of the oil that remains, and there are more than 2.4 million barrels (over 100 million gallons) floating around the Gulf or coating the shoreline. That's about half of the total oil spilled and nearly 10 times the amount spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Scientists monitoring levels of toxic chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) already have evidence of the oil's invisible impact on the Gulf ecosystem. The Natural Resources Defense Council described PAHs as "a class of chemicals which have been linked to DNA damage and cancer." PAHs in the Gulf were 40 times higher on June 7 than they were at the beginning of May. However, the water appeared to be clear of oil when the measurements were taken.
Scientists fear the long-term impact the oil, visible or not, will have on the ecology and wildlife of the region. In an August 4 Senate hearing, Dr. Ronald Kendall, an environmental toxicologist, voiced his concerns about the fate of endangered species like the Atlantic bluefin tuna, sperm whales and Kemp's ridley sea turtle. The losses suffered by these species may not be apparent for years. For example, the juvenile sea turtles now swimming to the affected parts of the Gulf from breeding grounds in Texas will not return to the Texas beaches to breed for 13-15 years. Dr. Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State, expressed worries for the fates of the burrowing fauna in the coastal sediments and soils and "a lowering of the productivity baseline -- the size and diversity of biological communities and their reproductive success -- for the Gulf ecosystem." He says, "A small, but significant, decrease, say 5-10 percent, would be difficult to demonstrate scientifically or prove legally, but would nonetheless be very grave."