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Slick From BP Oil Spill Shrinking, But Danger to Environment Hasn't Passed

Jul 28, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico spawned by the BP oil spill is rapidly disappearing. But according to government scientists, that doesn’t mean the threat to the environment is disappearing with it.

It is estimated that between 107 million gallons and 184 million gallons of crude spewed into the Gulf before a containment cap stopped the flow July 15. More than 600 miles of Gulf Coast beaches have been oiled. But as the slick – which once covered several thousands of square miles – shrinks, scientists are wondering were all that oil has gone.

According to The New York Times, they can account for some of it. For one thing, the Gulf of Mexico is filled with bacteria that can “eat” oil. Winds from two tropical storms that roared through the Gulf in recent weeks also helped to break up the slick. Some of the toxic compounds in the oil have naturally evaporated. Finally, cleanup crews were able to remove about 34.6 million gallons of oily water using skimmer boats and burned about 11.1 million gallons off the sea surface.

Still, the Times said many other components of the oil would have turned into tar balls. These will continue to wash up on Gulf Coast beaches for some time, and will present a continuing threat to sea life.

According to a report by the Associated Press, scientists are worried that much of the crude has been trapped below the surface after more than 770,000 gallons of chemical dispersant were used to break up the oil a mile deep. They have found evidence of massive clouds of oil suspended in the water.

“Less oil on the surface does not mean that there isn’t oil beneath the surface, however, or that our beaches and marshes are not still at risk,” Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a briefing on Tuesday. “We are extremely concerned about the short-term and long-term impacts to the gulf ecosystem.”

She went on to say that the oil was not sinking to the bottom. “As far as we can determine it is primarily in the water column itself, not sitting on the seafloor,” Lubchenco said.

There are serious concerns about what so much oil below the surface could be doing to sea life there. While two government studies have found levels of toxins in deep sea water to be low, uncertainties abound, especially regarding an apparent decline in oxygen levels in the water, the Times said. It will likely take scientists years to fully assess the impact of the oil spill.

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