It's Not Time to Scale Back the Gulf Coast Cleanup, Is It?


Photo: International Bird Rescue Research Center under a Creative Commons license.

With the flow of oil from the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico capped and most of the spilled oil skimmed from the water's surface, incoming CEO Robert Dudley said last weekend that it was time for BP to "scaleback" its cleanup efforts, the AP reported. Emphasizing the idea of a "scaling back" over "pulling back," Dudley insisted BP is as dedicated as ever to rehabilitating the Gulf.

This was followed on Wednesday by a report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), stating that the oil remaining in the water or on the shore (about 26% of the total spilled) now poses a relatively minimal threat to people and the Gulf ecosystem. But whether or not the situation has improved in recent weeks, it's hard to believe that the clean-up, which hasn't been totally convincing anyway, is anywhere near finished. To get to the bottom of the issue, the Environmental Defense Fund hosted a roundtable discussion on where we should go from here. Here are some highlights:

Jason Funk, conservation analyst in the Land, Water, & Wildlife (LWW) and International Climate Programs:

It's definitely not time for a "scaleback", but it probably is time for a transition in terms of the cleanup activities. The need for skimming and burning will rapidly diminish, but we still need to make the affected areas and communities whole again. We need to start by collecting the data to properly document the impacts of the oil - and let's not forget that up to 150 million gallons of oil are still out there, either as dissolved oil, dispersed oil, or oil residue. That oil hasn't "disappeared", even if it's no longer at the surface...The recovery process is really just beginning.

James Tripp, Senior Counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund:

If the Government's report is basically credible, then that is indeed good news. Environmentalists are often accused of being alarmists and overstating harm from some course of events. We do not want to do that.
[NOAA Administrator] Jane Lubchenco rightly points to the really serious scientific issue: what impact will low, dispersed concentrations of oil breaking down slowly at various depths have on oceanic eggs, larvae, and juveniles over the coming months and years? We must understand this in order to determine what effect, if any, the spill will have on food webs in the Gulf.

Steven Hamburg, Ph.D, ecosystem ecologist and EDF's chief scientist

The analogy that I've used to describe the Gulf is that it has gone from critical to stable condition, but it's still going to take a lot of effort and a long time before it returns to health. The government report says 25% of the oil has been collected, 25% is still in the Gulf, and 50% is in the form of smaller molecules that remain biologically active. Most of these smaller molecules are still somewhere in the Gulf's waters, and as they decompose, they will consume oxygen, which will threaten the Gulf ecosystem.

To read more, visit the EDF's "Restoration and Resilience" website.

More on the Gulf oil spill and cleanup:
BP Cleaning Up Less Than 1% of the Oil It Promised the Feds
BP's Ad Campaign Backfires (Video News)
BP Buys 32 Oil Cleanup Machines from Kevin Costner (Video)

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