WITH BP’s leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico finally capped, the focus shifts to the surface clean-up and the question on everyone’s lips is: where is all the oil?
For three long months, a massive slick threatened the shorelines of Louisiana and other southern US Gulf Coast states as BP tried everything from top hats to junk shots and giant domes to stanch the toxic sludge.
A cap stopped the flow on July 15 and now, thanks to frantic efforts to skim and burn crude on the surface, the difficulty is finding oil rather than cleaning it up.
Some 150 reconnaissance planes fly constant sorties from Florida to Texas noting any oil sitings, while flat-bottomed boats trawl the marshes for lumps of tar too large to biodegrade.
“What we have is an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil and the challenge is to find out where they are at right now because they are widely dispersed,” said US spill chief, Thad Allen.
Pressed further, Allen relented: “Maybe patches is a misnomer on my part. What we’re seeing are mats, patties, small concentrations, very hard to detect, but they’re out there. What we’re trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it.”
The figures speak for themselves. Before the cap, some 25,000 barrels of oil a day were being skimmed from the thickest part of the slick near the well site.
By the time tropical storm Bonnie arrived last week, the take was down to a pitiful 56 barrels, begging the question of what to do with the fleet of 800 skimmers, many run by disgruntled fishermen.
As to where all the oil that hasn’t been skimmed or burned off has gone, opinions vary: some experts say it has been broken down naturally by the elements and by microbes in the ocean, others fear it could be lingering in underwater plumes.
Only weeks ago, the slick was an unstoppable force that couldn’t be prevented from swamping shorelines, now the oil is an elusive enemy, one that has to be tracked down.
With hopes high the well will be sealed for good next week, Allen was conscious of the need to plan for the next phase.
Sophisticated underwater operations involving fleets of robotic submarines will make way for the less glamorous but complex work of shoreline clean-up assessment teams.
“They will sign-off literally mile by mile where we’ve had oil impact,” said Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, a government coordinator.
“And that is the very long phase of this operation, where you ultimately determine how clean is clean.”
Approximately 1,025km of Gulf Coast is officially listed as “oiled”.
The beaches should be relatively painless to mop up, but cleaning up the maze of marshes is a logistical nightmare.
Geologist Ed Owens, a world authority on protecting shorelines from oil spills contracted by BP, gave an upbeat assessment on Monday, saying the marshes should recover in a matter of months, but other scientists have warned of a decades-long effect on marine life.
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