Government, Scientists Differ on BP Oil Spill’s Lasting Effects

Evidence found of deepwater oil, which could present long-term threat to marine life

The oil is no longer gushing, but does that mean the Gulf is safe?

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, grilled government scientists Thursday at a rare recess hearing during which he questioned the validity of a report released earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claiming that that most of the BP oil spilled into the Gulf has been removed and no longer poses a threat.

“People want to believe that everything is okay and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf,” said Markey, who was the only lawmaker to attend the hearing.

Later the same day, a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported evidence of a deep underwater oil plume from the spill, which could present a long-term threat to marine life.

NOAA senior scientist Bill Lehr acknowledged during the hearing that his agency has just begun preparing to have the report peer reviewed and that it would take two months to release the documents to independent scientists.

“That’s not timely enough,” Markey said. “The real issue here is that the public has a right to know right now what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico, and your report should be analyzed by others right now.” He also said that the consequences could be great if NOAA’s findings turn out to be wrong.

Susan Suatoni, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also challenged the government’s findings and said that many unanswered questions remain. They include what proportion of oil was redirected to the open water, what organisms and ecosystems have been exposed to chemically dispersed oil and why NOAA has released data on fewer 100 out of thousands of samples. Suatoni asserted much greater transparency is required.

“There is still a huge amount of oil in the ecosystem. Even accepting the government’s characterization that 75% is gone, then there would be as much as 50 million gallons in the system, almost five times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill,” Suatoni said. If dispersed oil is added to the equation, the amount potentially increases to 100 million gallons. “It does a disservice to the Gulf region and to the public at large to minimize the problem that this amount of oil can cause,” she said.

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