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Effects from gulf oil spill far from over, experts say

The drilling rig being used for the primary relief well, foreground, and the Helix Q4000 platform used for the static kill operation are shown at the spill site.

Associated Press

The drilling rig being used for the primary relief well, foreground, and the Helix Q4000 platform used for the static kill operation are shown at the spill site.

The federal government — which has had to repeatedly revise its estimate about how much oil has gushed into the gulf from the Deepwater Horizon disaster — announced Wednesday that "the vast majority" of the oil appears to be gone.

Most of the estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil that spewed out of the collapsed well has "either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed," according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Interior Department.

Independent scientists scoffed at the report's findings. Several pointed out that the report estimates that a quarter of the oil is still floating in the gulf or contaminating beaches and marshes, while another quarter was dispersed, either with chemicals or naturally.

In other words, half of it, or about 2.5 million barrels, is still unrecovered.

"I don't think that's real good news," said James "Rip" Kirby, a University of South Florida coastal geologist who has been studying the spill's effects on Panhandle beaches. "That to me is like saying, 'Yee-haw, the Chicago Cubs are only 10 games out of first place!' "

Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor who worked on the Exxon Valdez disaster, questioned the validity of the estimates in the report, explaining, "These are just what we call WAGs — wild- a-- guesses."

Even if the report's numbers were dead-on, Steiner said, that would not mean the oil spill disaster is over, as some pundits are claiming. The impact is likely to linger for a decade or more.

For instance, in the Exxon Valdez spill, four years passed before the herring population in Prince William Sound collapsed. The toxic contamination had apparently hurt the herrings' immune system.

"The coast is not clear," agreed Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. "Even if all the oil was gone tomorrow, the potential ecological consequences will be unfolding for days, weeks and years to come."

The effects on sea turtles, for instance, likely won't be known for seven years, because that's how long it will take before this year's hatchlings return to the gulf coast to lay their own eggs, he said.

Last month, scientists reported that they found near the spill site a massive die-off of pyrosomes — cucumber-shaped, gelatinous organisms that are a food source for endangered sea turtles. One scientist called it "just a mass eradication" of the creatures.

Meanwhile, droplets of oil turned up inside the shells of young crabs that are a mainstay in the diet of fish, turtles and shorebirds. The orange spots were detected in crabs across the northern Gulf Coast, from southwestern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

Harriet Perry of the University of Southern Mississippi said that in 42 years of studying crabs, she'd never seen anything like it. The crabs are a key species for the whole food chain, she said. "If we have a loss of blue crabs, we're looking at a loss of everything."

When NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco unveiled Wednesday's report for reporters, she said, "Less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn't oil still in the water column or that our beaches and marshes aren't still at risk."

Scientists from USF and other academic institutions have found vast undersea plumes of dissolved oil droplets miles away from the Deepwater Horizon rig, a sign that the thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants sprayed at the wellhead spread the oil but did not get rid of it.

Kendall pointed out that the report is based on the latest estimate of how much oil has gushed out since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20. The initial estimate of 5,000 barrels a day has been repeatedly revised.

This week the experts said the well initially spewed out 62,000 barrels a day but the rate declined to 53,000 barrels a day by the time it was capped July 15, for a total of about 4.9 million barrels since the spill began.

Some of the numbers in the report released Wednesday suggest that the massive, expensive joint effort by BP and the government to clean up the spill paid poor dividends: 5 percent of the oil was burned, and a mere 3 percent was skimmed off the surface.

A quarter of it, the report said, simply evaporated.

News reports about the government estimates elated some pundits who had been skeptical about the spill's impact all along.

"The fact is, they can't find the oil," Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners Wednesday. "This is hilarious. ... Nature always cleans itself up eventually."

Limbaugh referred to reporters covering the oil spill as "dunces" who had been snookered by "environmentalist wackos" into writing stories depicting the disaster as a dire emergency.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Effects from gulf oil spill far from over, experts say 08/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 9:31am]

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