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New Estimate Puts BP Oil Spill at Nearly 5 Million Barrels

Aug 3, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Scientists tapped by the federal government to establish the flow rate for the BP oil spill now say about 4.9 million barrels of oil has been unleashed by the disaster. The new number, which averages out to about 62,000 barrels per day, exceeds all previous estimates.

The undersea oil well began gushing when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 men. On July 15, the well was capped with a containment device that has since allowed BP to siphon the oil up to ships on the surface.

Early in the disaster, BP released an estimate of a mere 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000 a day. Then, the federal government assembled the a group of scientist to measure the flow rate, and in late May, it came up with an estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day. That number was revised upwards several times, and prior to yesterday’s announcement, the group had put the flow rate between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day.

This latest estimate is said to be the most precise so far, according to The New York Times. After BP capped the well on July 15, the scientists’ measurements could be reinforced by pressure readings within the well.

To put it in perspective, the 1979 oil spill spawned by a blowout aboard the Mexican rig Ixtoc I oil rig released 3.3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to the BP disaster, it had held the record for the largest accidental release of oil into marine waters.

Under the Clean Water Act, the US government could fine BP $1.1 million for every barrel of oil spilled. If the spill is determined to be the result of gross negligence, the fine could increase to $4.3 million per barrel.

Meanwhile, BP engineers yesterday delayed testing to determine whether or not they could begin an operation known as a “static kill” to put an end to the oil spill once and for all. According to the Associated Press, the testing was pushed back a day after a small leak was discovered in the blowout preventer’s hydraulic control system.

The test should start sometime today, and if successful, the static kill, which involves dumping the heavy mud down the well through the blowout preventer, could also start today. While the operation may kill the well for good, engineers said they may not know for sure until they finish a relief well in another week or so, according to the Associated Press.

In other news, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has declared Gulf seafood safe to eat. And now that the containment cap has kept the stricken well plugged for to weeks, state-controlled fishing areas in Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi have slowly begun to reopen.

According to the FDA, smell tests on dozens of specimens from the area revealed barely detectable traces of toxic substances. In Mississippi on Monday, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said the government is “confident all appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that seafood harvested from the waters being opened today is safe and that Gulf seafood lovers everywhere can be confident eating and enjoying the fish and shrimp that will be coming out of this area.”

According to the Associated Press, the FDA has declined repeated requests to provide information about the toxic substances that were found, but the agency is mostly looking for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which have been linked to cancer. However, some critics are concerned the smell tests used by the FDA won’t detect the presence of chemical disbersants, some of which have little detectable odor.

Those critics include some Gulf fisherman. “If I put fish in a barrel of water and poured oil and Dove detergent over that, and mixed it up, would you eat that fish?” Rusty Graybill, an oysterman and shrimp and crab fisherman from Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, told the Associated Press. “I wouldn’t feed it to you or my family. I’m afraid someone’s going to get sick.”

Dawn Nunez, whose family operates a shrimp wholesale business in Louisiana, expressed skepticism when she learned of plans to reopen fishing grounds, the Associated Press said. “It’s nothing but a PR move,” she said. “It’s going to take years to know what damage they’ve done. It’s just killed us all.”

According to the Associated Press, Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal yesterday called on BP to fund a 20-year testing and certification program to restore confidence in seafood from the Gulf.

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