There’s just not enough recoverable oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout left in most offshore and deepwater areas to warrant additional cleanup operations, National Incident Commander Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft announced Friday.
Cleanup operations remain under way along shorelines and in wetland areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, he said, where officials also will focus on oil mats – weathered oil mixed with sediment – found in shallow water just off beach areas. More than 6,400 workers and 360 vessels are still working on the oil spill response.
Zukunft’s decision was accompanied by an announcement that the federal-BP oil spill response organization is transitioning into a long-term response role, with Zukunft returning to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington as assistant commandant for marine safety, security and stewardship.
Capt. Lincoln Stroh will become federal on-scene coordinator, overseeing the continued cleanup operations of the Gulf Coast Incident Management Team, which now becomes part of the Coast Guard’s 8th District headquartered in New Orleans.
The decision against further cleanup operations at sea is based on a report from Zukunft’s Operational Scientific Advisory Team that found no liquid quantities of oil from the Macondo well blowout in sediments beyond the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. None of the 17,000 water and sediment samples reviewed in the report exceeded EPA human health benchmarks for toxic chemicals or dispersants.
Less than 1 percent of water samples and only about 1 percent of sediment samples exceeded EPA’s aquatic life benchmarks for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a cancer-causing substance used as a standard by the cleanup effort, according to the report, and analyses of individual samples found that none of the water samples that exceeded EPA standards were from BP’s Macondo well.
Traces of oil mixed with drilling muds were also found in deepwater sediments near the Macondo drilling site.
The samples reviewed for the study, however, do not include a larger set of samples being collected by federal, state and industry officials as part of the separate Natural Resource Damage Assessment effort, which is aimed at determining the effects of the spill on fisheries, wildlife and humans.
The report concluded that there was still a gap in sampling in near-shore areas evidenced by the continuing discovery of tar mats, and said a group of researchers is now targeting that problem.
Scientists also are awaiting the results of more complex toxicity studies of water and sediment samples that will be the subject of an addendum to the report in early 2011, Zukunft said in a letter accompanying the report.
Zukunft said the report was limited in scope to addressing response actions, “and does not draw conclusions about the long-term environmental impacts of the spilled oil.”
“We’re not saying there’s no evidence of oil,” said Charlie Henry, NOAA science technical support coordinator for the oil spill. “NOAA is still working hard with the Food and Drug Administration on monitoring seafood safety. But we’ve reached the point where there’s nothing left that can be done to recover oil in those areas.”
But Mike Utsler, BP’s Unified Area Commander, said the report’s results are “consistent with our observations that the beaches are safe, the water is safe, and the seafood is safe.”
“BP still has work to do to finish cleaning up the remaining oil that is near the shoreline, and we continue to work with the communities of the Gulf of Mexico to meet our commitments,” he said.
The report should not be considered as evidence the oil is not causing environmental harm, said Marco Kaltofen, a civil engineer and researcher at Worcester Polytechnical Institute who is assisting private attorneys who have filed suit against BP.
Or that the oil has truly disappeared.
“We’re still finding tar balls washing up, fresh oil still with fingerprints from the BP Macondo well,” he said, citing sampling he’s conducted all along the Gulf Coast. “We’re still finding fish and shellfish with measurable quantities of oil contamination coming from areas that still has oil that can be linked to BP.”
It’s also important that the cleanup decision not be confused with eventual restoration plans, either onshore or offshore, said Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy.
Zukunft’s decision, instead, follows the letter of the Oil Spill Act, which provides a framework for how the Coast Guard and other responders are to deal with initial cleanup decisions, he said.
Takahashi-Kelso said the results on which the admiral based his decision may also be incomplete, as some federal sampling may be under wraps in preparation for the Justice Department’s civil lawsuit against BP and other responsible parties, or for use in the damage assessment process.