As oil dis­si­pates from wa­ter’s sur­face, new ques­tions arise


Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Gillis and Camp­bell Robert­son

The oil slick in the Gulf of Mex­ico ap­pears to be dis­solv­ing far more rapidly than any­one ex­pected, a piece of good news that raises tricky ques­tions about how fast the govern­ment should scale back its re­sponse to the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter.

The im­mense patches of sur­face oil that cov­ered thou­sands of square miles of the Gulf af­ter the April 20 oil rig ex­plo­sion are largely gone, al­though there con­tinue to be scat­tered sight­ings of tar balls and emul­si­fied oil.

Re­porters fly­ing over the area Sun­day spot­ted only a few patches of sheen and an oc­ca­sional streak of thicker oil, and radar im­ages taken since then sug­gest that these few re­main­ing patches are quickly break­ing down in the warm sur­face wa­ters of the Gulf.

John Amos, pres­i­dent of SkyTruth, an ad­vo­cacy group that crit­i­cized the early, low es­ti­mates of the size of the BP leak, noted that no oil had gushed

from the well for nearly two weeks.

“Oil has a fi­nite life span at the sur­face,” Amos said Tues­day, af­ter ex­am­in­ing fresh radar im­ages of the slick. “At this point, that oil slick is re­ally start­ing to dis­si­pate pretty rapidly.”

The dis­so­lu­tion of the slick should re­duce the risk of oil killing more an­i­mals or hit­ting shore­lines. But it does not end the many prob­lems and sci­en­tific un­cer­tain­ties as­so­ci­ated with the spill, and fed­eral lead­ers em­pha­sized this week that they had no in­ten­tion of walk­ing away from those prob­lems any time soon.

The ef­fect on sea life of the large amounts of oil that dis­solved be­low the sur­face is still a mys­tery. Two pre­lim­i­nary govern­ment re­ports on that is­sue have found con­cen­tra­tions of toxic com­pounds in the deep sea to be low, but the re­ports left many ques­tions, es­pe­cially about an ap­par­ent de­cline in oxy­gen lev­els in the wa­ter.

And un­der­stand­ing the ef­fects of the spill on the shore­lines that were hit, in­clud­ing Louisiana’s coastal marshes, is ex­pected to oc­cupy sci­en­tists for years. Fish­er­men along the coast are skep­ti­cal of any dec­la­ra­tions of suc­cess, ex­press­ing con­cern about the long-term ef­fects of the chem­i­cal dis­per­sants used to com­bat the spill and of the sub­merged oil, par­tic­u­larly on shrimp and crab lar­vae that are the foun­da­tion of fu­ture fish­ing sea­sons.

Af­ter 86 days of oil gush­ing into the Gulf, the leak was stopped July 15, when BP man­aged to in­stall a tight-fit­ting cap on the well a mile be­low the sur­face, then grad­u­ally closed a se­ries of valves. Still, the well has not been per­ma­nently sealed. Un­til that step is com­pleted in sev­eral weeks, the risk re­mains that the leak will re­sume.

Sci­en­tists said the rapid dis­si­pa­tion of the sur­face oil prob­a­bly stemmed from a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors. The Gulf has an im­mense nat­u­ral ca­pac­ity to break down oil, which leaks into it at a steady rate from thou­sands of nat­u­ral seeps. Al­though none of the seeps is any­where near the size of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon leak, they do mean that the Gulf is swarm­ing with bac­te­ria that can eat oil.

The winds from two storms that blew through the Gulf in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing a storm over the week­end that dis­in­te­grated be­fore mak­ing land­fall, also ap­pear to have con­trib­uted to a rapid dis­per­sion of the oil. Then there was the re­sponse mounted by BP and the govern­ment, the largest in his­tory, in­volv­ing more than 4,000 boats at­tack­ing the oil with skim­ming equip­ment, con­trolled sur­face burns and other tac­tics.

Some of the com­pounds in the oil evap­o­rate, re­duc­ing their ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment.

An un­known per­cent­age of the oil would have been eaten by bac­te­ria, es­sen­tially ren­der­ing the com­pounds harm­less and in­cor­po­rat­ing them into the food chain. But other com­po­nents of the oil have most likely turned into float­ing tar balls that could con­tinue to gum up beaches and marshes, and may rep­re­sent a con­tin­u­ing threat to some sea life. A band of tar balls three miles by four miles was dis­cov­ered off the Louisiana coast Tues­day.

Thad Allen, the re­tired Coast Guard ad­mi­ral who leads the govern­ment’s re­sponse, has em­pha­sized that boats are still skim­ming some oil at the sur­face. He said the risk of shore­line oil­ing might con­tinue for at least sev­eral more weeks.

Still, it is be­com­ing clear that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in con­junc­tion with BP, will soon have to make de­ci­sions about how quickly to be­gin scal­ing down the large-scale — and ex­pen­sive — re­sponse ef­fort. That is a touchy is­sue and not just for en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons.

The re­sponse it­self has be­come the prin­ci­pal liveli­hood for thou­sands of fish­er­men and other work­ers whose lives were up­ended by the oil spill. More than 1,400 fish­ing boats and other ves­sels have been hired to help de­ploy coastal bar­ri­ers and per­form other cleanup tasks. Those fish­er­men are un­con­vinced that the grad­ual dis­ap­pear­ance of oil on the sur­face means they will be able to re­turn to work soon.

“Sur­face is one thing; you know that’s go­ing to dis­si­pate and all,” said Mickey John­son, who owns a shrimp boat in Bayou La Ba­tre, Ala., point­ing out that shrimpers trawl near the seafloor.

While lead­ers on the Gulf Coast would wel­come moves by the fed­eral govern­ment that could put res­i­dents back to work, they are also wary of any pre­ma­ture dec­la­ra­tion of vic­tory. Of­fi­cials in Grand Isle, La., met with the Coast Guard af­ter the well had been capped to in­sist that no re­sponse equip­ment be re­moved un­til six weeks had passed.

Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft of the Coast Guard, co­or­di­na­tor of the re­sponse on the scene, said that any de­ci­sions about scal­ing down the ef­fort would be made only by con­sen­sus and only af­ter an anal­y­sis of the con­tin­u­ing threat from oil in each re­gion of the Gulf.

“I think it’s go­ing to hap­pen one day at a time,” Zukunft said.

At BP global head­quar­ters, ex­ec­u­tives face the me­dia. The com­pany an­nounced Tues­day that CEO Tony Hay­ward, left, will be re­placed by an Amer­i­can, Bob Dud­ley, right. Chair­man Carl-Hen­ric Svan­berg is at cen­ter.

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