Doubts about the government’s recent assertion that most of BP’s spewed oil is either gone or of little concern to the region are now as deep as the oil that has fouled the Gulf of Mexico since April 20. Now, three distinct groups of experts are at odds with federal officials.
Yesterday a group of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts released a study claiming that a 22-mile-long plume of oil the size of Manhattan Island still exists far below the surface of the Gulf. Ben Van Mooy, the study’s co-author said the oil “could stick around for quite a while.” The group published their study online yesterday and will release it today in the journal Science. They say the oil is disintegrating at just one-tenth the rate at which it breaks down on the surface of the water.
Also yesterday, a group of experts and academics, including Ian MacDonald, one of the country’s foremost oil slick experts, expressed grave concerns about the impact of the BP oil spill on the area’s food supply. MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University and a member of the Florida Oil Spill Academic Task Force, took issue with the widely reported government paper claiming that roughly 75 percent of the spewed oil has either disappeared or is no longer of concern to the region.
In testimony Thursday to the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee on Capitol Hill, MacDonald said he believes that the report issued by NOAA, the DOI and others on the state of the Gulf “is misleading… We have concerns about the numbers.” The report claimed that of 4.9 million barrels released into the Gulf from the busted oil well, roughly 75 percent had been cleaned up or been dispersed. The remainder was a light sheen at or near the surface or had washed ashore, the government-led team said.
MacDonald’s skepticism comes on the heels of an earlier round of doubts about the government report by five marine scientists from the University of Georgia and the Georgia Sea Grant. Their study concluded that 70 to 79 percent of the oil spilled into the Gulf by the BP accident had not evaporated or been recovered, but instead remained as an ongoing threat to the ecosystem. “The oil will likely take years to completely degrade,” lead author Charles Hopkinson said in a statement.
NOAA did not return our calls, but its chief, Jane Lubchencho, defended the government’s estimates. “We stand by the calculations we released recently,” she told The Wall Street Journal, adding that if additional federal monitoring reveals any new information, the government would issue revised estimates.
Also testifying on Capitol Hill yesterday was Donald Kraemer of the FDA, as well as Bill Lehr, a scientist with NOAA. But Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), the subcommittee chairman, sharply rebuked Lehr for his comment that the methodology used in the government’s report would not be released for another two months. “Two months — that’s not timely enough,” said Markey. “You don’t want to make all of the data and models available, but you’ve given us conclusions that result from these models. That is, to me, unacceptable.”
In MacDonald’s view, the government’s findings, which were assembled with input from Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, and other administration officials, “are summarized in a single pie-diagram, which lists several categories of oil, each as an exact percentage of the total oil released. This graphic is misleading because it mixes very different categories together and makes sweeping and largely unsupported arguments about the fate of each category in the Gulf of Mexico environment.”
Oil pumped from tankers but not discharged into the ocean is included in the total amount of oil leaked into the Gulf, according to MacDonald, which “inflates the total amount by 17 percent and gives the impression that the clean-up efforts were more effective than they actually were.” He added, “My strong criticism is that neither the report nor its online references provides any citations of scientific literature, formulas, or actual algorithms that would allow an independent reviewer to determine where these numbers actually come from… The majority of the oil persists in the environment, the gaseous fraction of discharge has not been adequately addressed, and the ecological impact will take years to assess and mitigate.”
The cost of the full ecological impact is, at this point, anybody’s guess. MacDonald told The Fiscal Times, “After Exxon Valdez, a $120 million trust fund was set up — which was later reduced. The BP discharge was more than 20 times greater than that, and it’s 20 years later. The math would suggest that a trust fund of several billion is required.” BP initially set aside $20 billion in escrow to handle damage claims.
To date, the company has paid out about $368 million to individuals and businesses hurt by the spill, and, not incidentally, has also spent about $50 million on its current ad campaign to rebuild its image, as well as about $3.3 million in lobbying, according to industry analysts. Beginning August 23 all claims will be handled by independent facilitator Kenneth Feinberg. Yesterday Feinberg said he would fast-track payments to legitimate claimants. “People have been waiting and waiting and waiting. I’m determined to accelerate the payments.”
Fishermen Test the Waters
As of now, waters controlled by the five Gulf states are mostly open for shrimping, while only about 22 percent of federal fishing waters remain closed, down from about 37 percent in June. With fishermen out in force again, all eyes are on their catches for any hints of oil or other contamination. Concerns remain high.
A.C. Cooper, a commercial shrimper in Venice, Louisiana, went back to work this week after three months of doing cleanup work for BP. He said that the decision to return to his trawls wasn’t easy and won’t be kind on his wallet. “I wanted to get back, but now I’m out here again and dealing with not too many shrimp and not too many docks buying,” he said on Wednesday. Cooper said prices have sunk since this time last year, when he could sell a pound of fresh Gulf shrimp for $2. “We’re down to $1.25 a pound.” He blamed waning demand on continuing fears about food safety.
In other developments, an aide to the federal point man on the spill, Thad Allen, said Thursday that the final plugging of BP’s well will start sometime after Labor Day. In addition, BP has now come under attack by the well’s owner, Transocean, which, according to the Associated Press, says BP “has withheld critical evidence needed to identify the cause of the worst maritime oil spill in history.” BP has not yet commented.
Ariella Cohen contributed reporting.