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Oil spill cleanup producing mixed messages

It has happened three times in two months. First with Time magazine, then twice with the New York Times.

A story in a national publication says the Deepwater Horizon disaster might not be quite as bad as everyone feared. Government and oil company employees nod their heads, eager to send the message that their cleanup efforts are succeeding.

Then comes the backlash, along with further evidence that the oil is still wreaking havoc.

The most recent example offers the most dramatic turnaround. On Monday, the New York Times published a story on its website headlined "Gulf May Avoid Direst Predictions After Oil Spill." Preliminary reports from scientists "suggest that the damage already done by the spill may also be significantly less than was feared," the story reported.

Then, on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that scientists had found a layer of oil 2 inches thick on the ocean bottom. Under the oil, they found dead shrimp.

"It's kind of like having a blizzard where the snow comes in and covers everything," University of Georgia researcher Samantha Joye told the AP from aboard a research vessel.

On Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published startling photos from a Louisiana bayou that had been hit by the oil. An enormous fish kill had just occurred. Redfish, crabs and shrimp covered the bayou from bank to bank, looking at first glance like a gravel road.

Local officials, who estimated the death toll at "hundreds of thousands of fish," blamed the oil spill. By Wednesday evening, the paper's website carried an Associated Press story reporting that the fish kill was unrelated to the spill, caused instead by a low tide and high temperatures.

So what's a reader to conclude?

To scientists, the repeated attempts to say the spill wasn't so bad is a sign of how short the media's attention span can be. The government and the oil industry are eager to trumpet any positive news, so that quickly makes headlines. By comparison, science prefers to take the long view.

"Some of the impacts from this are going to be years down the road," said Gil McRae, director of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Some of those effects won't be obvious. Maybe in eight or 10 years, he said, fish that might normally show up in a certain part of the gulf would go missing.

"It would be their absence that would indicate a possible effect," McRae said. Even what appears to be evidence of a recovery — new marsh grass growing in areas that were coated in oil — are uncertain, he said, since no one knows yet whether those marshes will function as well.

History shows reasons for being cautious. Four years passed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill before the herring fishery in Prince William Sound collapsed because of that spill's long-term effects.

The Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 11 universities, is just getting started on $10 million worth of studies on the impact Deepwater Horizon may have on everything from microbes to marine mammals. One topic the scientists hope to tackle is the long-term, cascading effects of the spill — say, on bluefin tuna, which were spawning in the vicinity of the spill.

But a desire to report each incremental development leaves no room for patience to wait for long-term studies. In July, about two weeks after BP capped the gushing rig, a Time magazine headline asked, "The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?"

"There's just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster," Ivor van Heerden, a former Louisiana State University professor, told the magazine. The story then noted the professor was a consultant being paid by BP.

Time's story also pointed out that crews had "documented more than 600 miles of oiled beaches and marshes, but the beaches are fairly easy to clean." However, the story missed the research by University of South Florida geologists that found that 6 inches to a foot beneath those cleaned beaches were layers of oil.

"The problem is they're only cleaning up the top of the beach," geologist Ping Wang said.

Looking beneath the surface has been difficult for some of those involved in the cleanup.

When scientists from USF and other institutions found vast undersea plumes of dissolved oil droplets — a sign that the thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants sprayed at the wellhead spread the oil but did not get rid of it — government and BP officials scoffed.

"There aren't any plumes," BP's then-CEO, Tony Hayward, insisted.

But when officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined samples taken by USF scientists, they wound up agreeing that there were indeed undersea plumes.

Yet on Aug. 4, the New York Times reported that a new government report about to be issued had found that three-fourths of the oil had disappeared "and that much of the rest is so diluted that it does not seem to pose much additional risk of harm."

White House energy czar Carol Browner appeared on all four morning TV shows to say, "The vast majority of oil is gone." She said the report had even been peer-reviewed. CNN's Anderson Cooper asked viewers, "Has the BP oil spill been overblown by politicians and scientists and media, including me?"

But independent scientists sharply questioned the report, and then the chief scientist who worked on it backtracked from the estimates and said it hadn't been peer-reviewed. Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike complained the White House was more interested in spin control than oil spill cleanup.

And then, on Aug. 19, scientists with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution produced a peer-reviewed report that said they had documented a plume at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface. They also found that deep-sea microbes were degrading the plume relatively slowly, raising the possibility that the mile-wide, 650-foot-high plume would persist for some time.

On Wednesday, top federal officials overseeing the spill response met with USF officials and others to talk about expanded monitoring of the oil being found deep in the gulf, not only in the water but also covering the sea bottom.

It isn't gone from the surface, either. On Sunday the New Orleans paper reported that "A new wave of black oil suddenly came ashore west of the Mississippi River on Friday and Saturday, coating beaches and fouling interior marshes."

Gulf well could be sealed by Sunday

KENNER, La. — The blown-out well at the bottom of gulf could be pronounced dead in a matter of days.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the oil spill, said Wednesday that work on the relief well that BP has been drilling all summer is nearly complete, with the hole to be sealed by Sunday.

The news came on the same day the Obama administration announced it will require oil and gas companies to plug thousands of idle wells in the gulf to make sure they don't leak.

Oil spill cleanup producing mixed messages 09/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 8:04am]
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