Majority of spilled oil in Gulf of Mexico unaccounted for in government data


Was Tony Hayward right, after all?

Back in May, BP’s chief executive told a British newspaper that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean,” and the vast amounts of oil and chemical dispersants dumped into it were small by comparison. After he said that, BP’s well leaked for two more months. Hayward’s upbeat assessment was cast as one of many gaffes committed on his way to resignation.

Now, 14 days after the well was closed and 100 days after the blowout, U.S. government scientists are working on calculations that could shed some light on Hayward’s analysis (even if they can’t shed light on why he said it). They are trying to figure out where all the oil went.

Up to 4 million barrels (167 million gallons), the vast majority of the spill, remains unaccounted for in government statistics. Some of it has, most likely, been cleaned up by nature. Other amounts may be gone from the water, but they could have taken on a second life as contaminants in the air, or in landfills around the Gulf Coast.

And some oil is still out there — probably mixed with chemical dispersants. Some scientists have described it floating in underwater clouds, which one compared to a toxic fog.

“That stuff’s somewhere,” said James H. Cowan Jr., a professor at Louisiana State University. His research has shown concentrations of oil still floating miles from the wellhead. “It’s going to be with us for a while. I’m worried about some habitats being exposed chronically to low concentrations of toxins. . . . If the water’s contaminated, the animals are going to be contaminated.”

‘The truth is in the middle’

By July 15, when the mile-deep BP well was capped, it had leaked out enough oil to fill the Pentagon more than 10 feet high. The gulf’s total volume is about 880 million times the size of the Pentagon — although the oil’s effects were concentrated in one corner of it.

On Wednesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said the oil is now much less visible on the surface and present only in microscopic, dilute droplets further down. She said that was a sign that the gulf ecosystem is resilient and processing the hydrocarbons.

But she said that “doesn’t mean the situation is benign, because it is not.”

“There’s so much noise out there now saying the gulf is dead or the gulf will come back easily,” Lubchenco said. “The truth is in the middle.”

The government’s accounting of what became of all the oil will be key to making this final judgment. Officials did not provide a date when that accounting would be ready. For now, government figures allow only a rudimentary estimate of the oil that might still be unaccounted for.

Relying on the latest estimate of the leak’s total volume — 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons) per day, at most — then 5.2 million barrels may have escaped over 86 days. Of that, about 1.2 million barrels were either siphoned, burned or skimmed.

That would leave slightly less than 4 million barrels missing.

The best-case scenario is that much of this amount has been eaten by the gulf’s natural stock of oil-munching microbes. Several scientists have said they are concerned that these microbes could cause their own problems, depleting the oxygen that gulf creatures need in the water.

But Wednesday, NOAA’s Lubchenco said oxygen-free dead zones have not been detected so far. And Ed Overton, a professor at LSU, said he believed the microbial process, supercharged by summer heat, was helping.

“We have made a gigantic biological treatment pond in the gulf,” Overton said. Because of its work, he said, “we’re well, well over the hump. I would say that the acute damage — we’ve seen it, it’s [already] been done. And that the environment is in the recovery stage.”

Air quality concerns

But, in some places, good news from the water has meant bad news in the air. A NOAA report on the air quality downwind of the blowout site — where as much as 10,000 barrels of oil were burned off every day for more than a month — found high levels of hydrocarbons in the air, as much as 10 times what would be detected in the air over Los Angeles. The amount of “particulate matter,” which means microscopic particles suspended in the air, was about twice that found over Los Angeles.

But on Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency officials said that the pollutants seem to dissipate in the 40-plus miles between the well site and populated places on land. They said they have taken samples of air at more than 400 sites around the Gulf Coast and have found no evidence that pollutants from the BP spill exceed safe levels.

“Probably the only good thing about the BP spill is that it was far away from the coastline,” said Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator overseeing air-pollution programs. “I’m not denying that people are smelling things. But the nose is a much more sophisticated tool . . . than many people realize,” she said, and a bad smell doesn’t mean toxic air.

Some other portion of those 4 million missing barrels of oil has been scooped off gulf beaches, placed into plastic bags and carted away. In total, 35,421 tons of oily waste has been taken to landfills around the gulf region, according to data from the EPA and BP — a total that includes not just the oil itself but also oil-covered seaweed and beach debris, and oil-tainted protective gear worn by cleanup workers.

The EPA says its procedures will keep the oil from leaching out into groundwater. In Louisiana, in particular, the oily waste is kept in plastic-lined “cells,” with a system for capturing leaking oil before it escapes.

In several communities near the landfills, residents have protested that if BP’s cleanup workers need protective suits to get the oily debris off the beach, then the oil doesn’t belong in their neighborhoods. They worry it will escape into the ground.

“It’s like someone dumping something in your front yard, and then you call in and complain about it,” said Marlin Ladner, 64, a member of the Harrison County, Miss., Board of Supervisors. His coastal county is home to Pecan Grove Landfill, which has received at least 1,210 tons so far. “And they come and pick it up and haul it to your back yard.”

The environmental legacy of the spill — the final proof or disproof of Hayward’s optimism — will probably depend on the oil that’s left. NOAA scientists have offered upbeat assessments of the oil that remains below the ocean’s surface, saying they’ve seen significant concentrations only near the wellhead.

But other scientists, working for Gulf Coast universities, have reported finding large “clouds” of oil miles away from the site.

Cowan, the LSU professor, said that two weeks ago his crew had detected a layer of something thick underwater, then sent a remote-controlled submarine down to look at it. They saw BB-size globs, he said, that were the same orangish color as the oil on the surface. He said that, in deeper water, cold temperatures will slow the breakdown of the oil — and it could affect animals such as worms, fish, crabs and corals.

One recent study from a Tulane University researcher found what seemed to be a worrying snapshot of what this missing oil is doing. Professor Caz Taylor looked at baby blue crabs and saw something odd under their translucent shells: orange blobs. She speculates that the crabs may have molted in the midst of oil or dispersant and trapped some of it literally inside themselves.

“We’re so unsure of what’s going on at this point,” including whether the oil might hurt creatures that eat the crabs, Taylor said. “The worrying thing is that we’re seeing these droplets everywhere that we’re sampling,” she said, from Galveston Bay, Tex., to Pensacola, Fla.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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