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Gulf oil spill 1 year later: NOAA boss answers Mike Thomas' questions

Environmental PollutionNational Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationWater PollutionDeepwater Horizon Oil Spill (2010)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the nation's lead science agency in handling oil spills. On the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco talked to Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas about the health of the Gulf, the safety of seafood, conflicting science and the media's role in covering the disaster.

Mike Thomas: Did the Gulf survive the oil spill better than you could have imagined a year ago?

Jane Lubchenco: I think that thanks in part to both an incredible federal response and also significant help from Mother Nature, the overall impact was not as bad as many of us feared that it might be. That said, the jury is still out about what the overall impact is. This is an ongoing disaster. We do not yet know how fast the full recovery will be or the full extent of the damage.

Thomas: What was incredible about the federal effort?

Lubchenco: This was an unprecedented disaster that required a response across multiple federal agencies, with the states and with the private sector. Producing a response of this magnitude in the short timeframe we did it was very, very impressive. There were almost 50,000 responders in the Gulf. There were over 100 aircraft. There were over 8,000 vessels. That's a lot of coordination with those pieces. I can't give Adm. Thad Allen enough credit for his very strong and effective leadership. It was very much to the president's credit that he tapped Adm. Allen for this job.

Thomas: More than 400 dolphins have been found dead since the spill. There are reports of a record number of sea turtle deaths, and of red snapper being caught off western Louisiana and Florida that have rotted fins. Is this oil related?

Lubchenco: I think it is quite likely that many deaths were oil related. We don't have any good way of estimating how many [animals] have died that we haven't found stranded. We still are in the midst of our overall investigation to try to understand the full impact of the spill on the health of those populations and broadly on the health of the whole ecosystem. And what kind of restoration can make up for that damage.

 

Thomas: Is BP paying for all this?

Lubchenco: There are multiple responsible parties. The goal of the damage assessment is to ensure responsible parties pay for damage they've done.

Thomas: Will your research go beyond oil to the bigger threats facing the gulf, such as pollution from the Mississippi River and the erosion of Louisiana wetlands?

Lubchenco: Before this oil spill disaster happened, NOAA and other federal and state agencies and quite a few academic scientists had been working together to identify many of the ongoing threats to the health of the Gulf. Nutrients flowing from land are one of those. Invasive species. Loss of wetlands. Overfishing.

What needs to happen is to restore the Gulf to a healthy condition. That should be the end goal, not just restoring it to the state it was before the spill happened. But it's important to note the damage assessment process is limited by law to evaluating damage caused from the spill.

Thomas: Have you detected any oil or chemical dispersants in seafood?

Lubchenco: The short answer is no. We are doing ongoing surveillance of seafood. We periodically go out and take samples and analyze them. We are consistently finding no hydrocarbons and no dispersants in any of the seafood we are sampling. We just announced the opening of the last area of the Gulf we closed to fishing.

Thomas: So I can go fish at the wellhead?

Lubchenco: Yes, you can.

Thomas: Much was made of the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil? Did that prove to be the right decision?

Lubchenco: Clearly the choice to use dispersants was based on information we had about the tradeoffs. Breaking up the oil into small microscopic droplets did, in fact, speed up the rate at which it was biodegraded by natural microbes in water. It kept the oil from flowing onto shore. But we still don't have a good handle on what the potential damage that was done by that subsurface oil and whether were natural or caused by dispersants that were used.

(Note from Thomas: Lubchenco is referring to the undersea oil plumes that spread out from the well. It is unknown how much they were caused by the dispersants injected at the wellhead and how much they were caused by the natural breakup of the oil as it jetted out a mile under the water.)

Thomas: Where is the oil now?

Lubchenco: Of the 4.9 million barrels released into the Gulf — plus or minus 10 percent — the vast majority of that is gone now. The remaining oil is along the shoreline. The last assessment indicated that 66 miles of shoreline remain heavily or moderately oiled. There is some oil that is in the near-shore waters that resurfaces during storms in the form of tar balls and tar mats. We also have video images that indicate there are spots on the [deep Gulf] seafloor where there is clear evidence of oil residue. But we don't have good information how extensive that is.

Thomas: There has been much controversy about how much oil remains in the deep Gulf. One of your scientists said in September that the bottom was not visibly oiled. A NOAA report in December examined thousands of sediment samples and couldn't find any BP oil away from the wellhead. But you are saying it is out there?

Lubchenco: We do know that there are some specific places that have been identified where there is either documented or suspected oil. But it's a real challenge to extrapolate from that to the entire sea floor of the Gulf. The challenge here is how to sample a huge, huge area, which is what the Gulf is.

Thomas: Biologist Samantha Joye, from the University of Georgia, has released videos that she says reveals extensive oil deposits on the bottom, smothering sea life such as starfish and worms.

Lubchenco: She and others are using knowledge about movement of currents and the bottom topography to identify areas that are most likely to be affected. Damage to those areas may be significant. What we don't know is how much we can generalize from those places to the rest of the Gulf.

Thomas: So you don't question that Joye is finding damage from the spill?

Lubchenco: We know there is a lot of oil in the Gulf and a lot of spills to begin with. I haven't seen documentation that this is [BP] oil. That would be important to verify. Secondly we would like to know how extensive the damage is.

Thomas: A NOAA research ship found dead coral about seven miles from the wellhead. Have you found more indications of such damage?

Lubchenco: I haven't heard of any to date. Clearly those corals were not in good shape. On that same trip the same team found other nearby areas that were in good shape. I think what we're seeing the very patchwork nature [of the damage].

 

Thomas: Is the deep Gulf a critical environmental habitat?

Lubchenco: It absolutely is. It's important to the functioning of the whole system. The coral and sponge communities that are down there are important ones. We know relatively little about them to begin with.

Thomas: There was conflict between NOAA and Joye and other scientists when they reported finding undersea oil plumes shortly after the spill. You initially expressed some skepticism, and they complained NOAA was trying to suppress their findings.

Lubchenco: As a scientific agency we felt it was vitally important for us to share information as soon as we had done the quality checking to make sure it was accurate information. Because of the intense media interest in all of this, we felt it was equally appropriate for all academic scientists to not speculate, but to talk about their findings when their findings had been verified. We urged all scientists to do that. And I think that was misconstrued as telling them not to show what they finding when in fact we were asking them to be responsible and talk about findings when they had them verified.

Thomas: How did you feel about the media coverage?

Lubchenco: I think the media coverage was all over the map. Some was very responsible and some significantly less so. There were a lot of storylines that took on a life of their own apart from any validity. Some people wanted a storyline that the Gulf is dead. Others wanted a story line that it is fine, and everything will just bounce back. The truth is somewhere in the middle. When we would say this is what the science is telling us, this is what we're finding, this is what we're seeing, it didn't fit some people's storylines. We were selling out to the other side.

There were also lots of swirling politics around all this. Throughout the process, we tried to consistently focus on our job which was to provide the scientific information, to protect wildlife and habitat, to keep seafood safe and then to assess the damage and restore the Gulf. At NOAA we are all firmly grounded in science. And so we consistently said to our folks: Share what you know. Don't speculate. Don't hype. Don't underplay. Tell it like it is. But base it on information we have and we can document.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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