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Scientist Accuses Obama Administration and BP of Underestimating Amount of Oil Left in Gulf of Mexico

StoryAugust 23, 2010
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Ian Macdonald

oceanographer at Florida State University.

New evidence has badly shaken the Obama administration’s rosy narrative about the alleged disappearance of most of the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s blown-out well. Early this month a report by government scientists declared that three-quarters of the oil had vanished, either collected or dispersed. But numerous reports contradict the administration’s sanguine picture of the cleanup effort. We speak to Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer and expert on measuring oil spills from Florida State University. He testified at a congressional hearing last week and said the actual amount of oil removed from the Gulf is only around ten percent and predicted the spill will likely remain harmful for decades. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the Gulf of Mexico. New evidence has badly shaken the Obama administration’s rosy narrative about the alleged disappearance of most of the oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s blown-out well. Early this month a report by government scientists declared three-quarters of the oil had vanished, either collected or dispersed. But numerous reports contradict the administration’s sanguine picture of the cleanup effort.

Researchers at the University of Georgia said about three-quarters of the oil is still lurking below the surface of the Gulf and may pose a threat to the ecosystem. Separately, a study released last week by the University of South Florida scientists found oil in sediments of an underwater canyon and evidence that the oil has become toxic to critical marine organisms. On Thursday, a team of researchers confirmed the existence of a vast underwater oil plume stretching twenty-one miles from BP’s blown-out well. Christopher Reddy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said the amount of oil in the plume is unknown.

Speaking before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Thursday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist Bill Lehr acknowledged that only ten percent of the oil has been cleaned up and that large quantities, evaporated or dispersed, remain in the Gulf ecosystem. The subcommittee chair, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, closed the hearing criticizing the administration’s so-called "premature celebration" and urged further vigilance.

    REP. EDWARD MARKEY: BP, in my opinion, will try to walk away as fast as they can. BP lowballed the size of the spill in the first week, saying it was 1,000 barrels. Then they said it was 5,000 barrels. They knew in the first week that it was a huge spill. It turns out to be between 53,000 and 63,000 barrels per day. That is not 1,000 barrels. That changed the level of response in those first weeks, in those first months, because of the misleading information. People were less vigilant than they would have been. The response was less intense than it would have been if we understood the magnitude.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution about the amount of oil in the plume.

    CHRISTOPHER REDDY: All I can tell you is that we found a plume. And I can’t tell you how much oil is in it, because we don’t have the values yet. We know there is a plume. We know its length. We know its shape. We know that we collected water samples in it. And when we have analyzed those samples, we’ll be able to constrain how much — what the inventory of those compounds were in there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer and expert on measuring oil spills, from Florida State University. He also testified at Thursday’s hearing and said the actual amount of oil removed from the Gulf is around ten percent and predicts the spill will likely remain harmful for decades.

Ian MacDonald, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you have found? Talk about what the government says, and talk about what all these different studies, including yours, are saying now about the amount of oil in the Gulf.

IAN MacDONALD: Well, what’s happening now, we can confirm that the oil that had been visible, that had been so troubling to us and to the ecosystem, as floating layers on the surface of the ocean, has largely disappeared from view. But that does not mean that it’s gone from the ecosystem or gone from our problems. Much of that oil has either sunk to the bottom and has become shallowly buried in marine sediments or in coastal soils, where it will pose, as I said, a threat to the ecosystem for years to come, or potentially it remains in dissolved layers both at the surface and in the deepwater layers that Reddy and Camille Li and his other colleagues at Woods Hole referred to. And as you said at the opening, this scenario of where the oil is and the concerns that it raises about the future of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem contradict the way in which this government report of August 4th was rolled out by Jane Lubchenco and by Carol Browner.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how this study by NOAA was done by the National Oceanographic institute.

IAN MacDONALD: Well, the hearing on Thursday before Representative Markey’s subcommittee was pretty remarkable. The questioning went on for over an hour and a half. And during the course of the questioning of the three government witnesses that were there — Bill Lehr of NOAA, Paul Anastas of Food and Drug — of EPA, and Don Kraemer of the Food and Drug Administration — Markey focused on Lehr and made Lehr roll back the statement that three-quarters of the oil was gone. And he was obliged to admit that, in fact, probably 80 percent of the oil is still in the ecosystem.

It seemed clear from Lehr’s testimony that what happened was that he and other scientists at NOAA compiled a report, which they intended as an internal document for the responders so that they could understand the different categories of oil, what had happened to these oil — this budget, as it were, to guide some of the response efforts, and at some point, this report, intended as a private document, became a very public document and was presented by Lubchenco, Browner and by the White House as a scientific result, definitively showing that the oil was gone and inferring that there was little further threat to the ecosystem. What was presented as scientific fact is largely conjectural and contained no references to the scientific literature, none of the algorithms or formulas or other information that would allow investigators or independent investigators to assess what had been done. So this made what should have been science into a policy and a PR exercise, and that’s an unfortunate turn of events in informing the public about the next — future of this oil disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: So where did this report come from, Ian MacDonald?

IAN MacDONALD: Well, it came from NOAA. It was written by Bill Lehr, who is a physicist and a senior responder to oil spills within NOAA. And he put it together. What it is is it’s the results from a series of spreadsheets and other algorithms that look at the different pieces of the oil, the different components of the oil, separated between the water and the burning and the skimming, and it says, well, you know, knowing what we know about how oil behaves and the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, knowing what we know about the type of oil that was discharged, what’s likely to have happened to it. And so — and then it presents these projections, these model results, which describe — you know, they have good numbers on the burning and skimming. They know how much they recovered with the skimming operations, and they have a reasonable idea of what the burning does. But all the rest of the report is not based on measurement, but based on theoretical models, which were not available. So, this report, which should have been science, in fact, became a policy and PR. And that continues an unfortunate trend within NOAA of rolling out seemingly authoritative statements about the oil discharge, only to have to correct them or revise them subsequently. And it’s not the way we want to see our government handling such a catastrophe or calamity for such a large region.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you call this government report a cover-up, Ian MacDonald?

IAN MacDONALD: No, I wouldn’t call it a cover-up. I would call it a misdirection. I think it was an example of taking a rosy scenario, which was compiled prematurely and was still under progress by the scientists who were in charge of putting it together, and then projecting it as scientific fact. That’s not a cover-up, per se, but it very much — you know, it’s much in line with the early statements that Representative Markey referred to where the government and BP said confidently that there was only a thousand barrels or 5,000 barrels coming out of the well, and we know that it was at least ten times that, and was subsequently — were forced to admit.

I guess the other thing that the oil budget does not account for, and which I’ve been concerned about, as have others, is the amount of gas that was released. This is an unprecedented discharge, this exploded well belonging to BP, unprecedented in the fact that it was in 5,000 feet of water and that the discharge went on in an uncontrolled way for nearly a hundred days. That’s really never occurred before. And much of the science, as Reddy and his colleagues have told us, still needs to be done to figure out where all that oil is. But we do know, from BP’s own numbers, that the oil comprised about 3,000 cubic feet per barrel of gas. If you present the numbers, not in units of volume, in like cubic feet or barrels of oil, but in equivalent units of mass or equivalent units of energy, barrel of oil equivalents, what that 3,000 cubic feet per barrel means is that the oil plus the gas is equal to 1.5 times the oil alone. In other words, if the discharge was over four million barrels of oil, the total discharge of oil plus gas was over six million barrels. And I say — and others agree — that under the auspices of the Oil Pollution Act, this total amount should be treated as the discharge for which BP is liable.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, won’t this report help BP in all future suits?

IAN MacDONALD: It could be construed that way, and that has been troubling all along, is that many of the statements by the Coast Guard, by the Unified Command, could be construed as minimizing the effects. And Markey bore down on that fact at many times during his questioning and during the testimony, pointing out that these sort of lowball estimates constrained the way we thought about and constrained the way the response effort went forward. So when we were being told that we didn’t need to measure the rate of the spill because the response effort was already at 100 percent of the capacity and nothing would change if we knew different, that turns out not to have been true at all. It wasn’t, in fact, until Secretary Chu and members of the USGS began carefully to put together spill rate estimates or discharge rate estimates that the response began to actually get control of the situation on the bottom of the ocean and began to be able to shut this thing off. So we desperately needed those numbers, and the government was very unwilling in the beginning, dragged its feet and denied the necessity of doing so. And at a number of crucial junctures in this, I’m afraid the government has done this, at least at an executive level. Congress, on the other hand, has been very forthright about forcing the release of the video and about holding BP’s feet to the fire in terms of continued hearings. So it’s an interesting contrast in response.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. When you talk about the Unified Command, when we flew over the Gulf of Mexico, were taken up by the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard spokesperson, his ID that he was wearing had a BP symbol behind it. And I asked him about that, and he said — well, he didn’t know why it was like that. But I also spoke with a consultant who worked out of Mobile, Alabama, and he, too, had to wear an ID with a BP logo. These are people who are working for the government, right? Unified Command — this is the Coast Guard. Can you explain that relationship, Ian MacDonald?

IAN MacDONALD: Well, it stems from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and subsequent studies about how best to manage an oil spill. And the decisions made and the way that it was structured does a couple of things that we ought to reconsider as we go forward and think about the next steps. What it does, first of all, is it places the responsible party — i.e. the oil company or the drilling company, whoever it is that’s created the discharge, who’s lost control of the oil — it makes them responsible for the cleanup, the actual physical logistics of operating the cleanup and response operation, and with the oversight of the Unified Command under the Coast Guard’s immediate jurisdiction. It also brings in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Commerce in the form of NOAA, and Homeland Security. So you have quite a number of cabinet-level advisers sort of all mixing around and trying to direct a private corporation, which of course has its own very deep legal and logistic concerns.

So BP, all the way through this, of course, has had public relations and legal concerns that it’s dealt with, and many of its responses can be seen through the lens of BP trying to manage both their immediate public relations image and the legal trials and tribulations that they’re going to face in court for years to come. And then you filter that through a — you know, a Unified Command structure comprising at least four cabinet-level positions, and you’ve got a very muddled situation. It’s not easy for the public to understand, and I don’t think it’s easy for the Coast Guard to run. So, Thad Allen, although I’m critical of some of the things he’s done, he’s certainly maintained his equilibrium throughout this and managed to be a calm spokesman, if not always a correct one.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, I want to ask you about the effect of so much oil underneath the water, on the bottom of the sea. We’re talking to Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University. We’re speaking to him in Tallahassee. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Dahr Jamail, who has been spending time in Mississippi talking to the fishermen, who are concerned or refusing to go out because of the dispersants, afraid that they, too, could get sick. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Ian MacDonald, oceanographer at Florida State University. Before we go to Dahr Jamail, I wanted to ask you, Ian, about this oil under the sea, what this means, what, for example, Woods Hole was talking, Christopher Reddy.

IAN MacDONALD: What Christopher Reddy has documented and what the University of South Florida also showed, in a different direction, was that the oil spread out underwater far from the well site. And we don’t know what’s going to happen to that oil. We do know, from the Woods Hole report, or the Woods Hole scientists concluded that the rate at which the oil is being consumed by microorganisms is much slower than what NOAA credited that rate to be. We also know from the findings of the South Florida group that thousands of square miles of the ocean bottom have been sprinkled with degraded oil, tar balls, if you like, and still more of that oil has been concentrated along the coastal sediments and in coastal soils. And what that material does is it sinks down several inches, maybe a foot or more, below the sea bottom, and it finds a layer where there’s relatively little oxygen, and it stays there for decades. In that position, as we’ve seen in Prince William Sound after Exxon Valdez and elsewhere, that oil restructures the ecosystem in fundamental ways. The oil, which had dissolved on the surface layers, may affect plankton and fish larvae. The bottom line, if you read the NOAA report honestly and fairly, is that the Gulf of Mexico received a massive dose of hydrocarbons. And we have to watch for years to see how quickly it recovers.

My concern in the aftermath of all this is that we have the resolve and the wherewithal properly to assess and, most importantly, properly to restore the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, which was already in trouble before this grave insult. And I hope that the very large fine that BP is going to have to pay as a result of this, that a great portion of that — although we’re very concerned about hotel owners and shrimpers and so forth — it’s Mother Nature who’s been made to clean up our big mess, and we need to put Mother Nature first in line for repayment, as we go forward. And I think that there are movements within Congress to establish an ocean endowment that would do that, through programs to restore the wetlands, establish marine protected areas, regulate coastal communities to force them to clean up their runoff. There are many, many programs. But the costs are high, and the costs are recurring. And the way forward through an ocean endowment, I think, is what we have to hope for.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian MacDonald, I’d like to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to turn, though, now to Dahr Jamail.

The Obama administration announced last week it’s safe to eat fish and shrimp caught in the 78 percent of federal waters in the Gulf that are now reopened to fishing. But many are still concerned about the levels of toxins in the water and the impact on marine life. Independent journalist Dahr Jamail has been reporting from the Gulf Coast for over a month now. Last week he spoke to some commercial fishermen in Mississippi who are refusing to trawl because of the oil and dispersants that are still in the water. James "Catfish" Miller told Jamail, quote, "Why would we lie about oil and dispersant in our waters, when our livelihoods depend on our being able to fish here?" Dahr Jamail joins us now by Democracy Now! video stream from Texas, where he lives.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dahr. Talk about what you have found in Mississippi.

DAHR JAMAIL: Last Thursday, I went out on a boat with Mr. Miller, as well as his friend and another commercial fisherman, Mark Stewart. Both of them are long-term, multi-generational fishermen in Mississippi, and they also are both former members of BP’s Vessels — so-called Vessels of Opportunity program, the VOO program, both recently released from that program as BP scales back its response efforts. And they’re very concerned because they usually trawl for shrimp around the Mississippi Sound and sometimes outside the barrier islands of Mississippi, and they — what they told me, and actually what they showed me, is that the area is extremely unsafe, that oil, submerged oil, mixed with dispersants, have infiltrated the area.

We drove around on his trawler for several hours, and you could watch on the sonar clouds popping up. We were in about twelve, thirteen feet of water. And the middle part of the area would literally fill up with a big cloud, and we would stop the boat, and he would basically drop down, tie some sorbent pad to a grappling hook, drop it down in the water and pull it up, and it would be covered in sort of a slimy, brown oil-dispersant mix. And it was — we did that eight times. Every single time, we caught oil and dispersant mix.

And it was a very disturbing thing to see, in addition to the fact that these guys said, "Look, we refuse to fish here, because this is so toxic, and we can see that there’s less life here." They have friends who have started to try to fish, because the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources on August 6 reopened much of their fishing grounds to commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen. And they know personally, both Miller and Stewart — they know commercial fishermen who are going out and catching either nothing or a maximum 200 pounds of shrimp per go, in a situation where normally they would be catching between 700 pounds and a thousand pounds a night. And according to them, 200 pounds, you can’t even pay your — cover your expenses with that much. They’re also reporting seeing crabs in the middle of the day trying to crawl out of the water, because there is not enough oxygen in the water. They’re seeing far, far less birdlife and overall marine life throughout the entire Mississippi Sound, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who is spraying the dispersant, Dahr?

DAHR JAMAIL: These men, along with numerous other commercial fishermen, all of which were members of the VOO program in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the western Panhandle of Florida, are all pointing the finger at BP for hiring out-of-state contractors, meaning not Gulf Coast community workers but people who don’t live on the — in the Gulf Coast region, to come in and go out in a type of boat called a Carolina Skiff, which is basically being used as a utility boat. Both Miller and Stewart both told me they’ve been eyewitness to this. And these boats basically go out to the areas that VOO workers identify as oiled areas, that the VOO workers will go up in all four states over the last several months, find the oil, call in the location to BP command, be sent away from that oil, and then they will see, as they go in from their day of work out on the water, they’ll see these foreign — these out-of-state contract workers, private contractors, going out in these Carolina Skiff boats with big white tanks in them, 375-gallon white tanks, and go out and spray the oil. And Stewart and Miller both told me they were eyewitness to this personally, that they saw these boats at times hosing down from the boats with dispersants giant patches of oil floating in the water. And then, when they would come — the VOO workers would come back out the next day, go to where the oil was they had located the day before, and there would be nothing but a big pasty, white, emulsified, foamy substance atop the water, which has become commonly known throughout the Gulf region now as the remnants of dispersed oil, after they come out, hit it with dispersants, sink the oil, and then that’s all that’s left. And this has been reported to me by commercial fishermen, most of which were members of the VOO program in all four of the most heavily affected states to date.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian MacDonald, can you talk about the danger of these dispersants? Do you understand what it is, and that whole issue of the fact that it was proprietary, the company that made it? Did you and other scientists, the US government, ever reveal exactly what was in these dispersants and their effect on the marine life in the ocean?

IAN MacDONALD: I think we have a better idea what’s in the dispersant now than we did to begin with. There have been a couple of different types of dispersant applied. Apparently, what they were using to start out with was fairly toxic overstocks, and then they came out with a newer formulation that was less toxic. I think if the Carolina Skiff operation that we’ve just heard described is what’s going forward, I’ll say that I’ve seen similar things offshore Louisiana, offshore Venice. If you go out to the tide line, after the oil stopped flowing, what it tends to do is the thin layers of oil roll over on themselves, and they roll over and roll over until they become huge gooey mats of a sort of a ropey light brown stuff, which floats in the tide line. I mean, it’s not a continuous thing, but there are these big clumps of it. You know, the appropriate response would be to go out and try to skim it up and remove it from the ecosystem. But if you use dispersant in the way that’s been described, what you do is you hide it from view. You sink it to the bottom of the ocean, with the hope that somehow or another Mother Nature is going to clean it up for you. So, essentially, what’s been described here, dispersant is being used to sweep this stuff under the rug, instead of remove it from the house. And, you know, that is a matter of grave concern, if that’s what’s happening on a broad scale.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dahr Jamail, talk about, in this last — in your last comment here, what most surprised you in this month, and in the progression of the month, before you returned to Texas?

DAHR JAMAIL: I think the ongoing cover-up by BP of simultaneously scaling back the response effort along with trying to act as though everything is OK and life is back to normal, because what I’ve seen across the Gulf region, actually over the last couple of months, most of which spent down there, is that there’s massive fish kills in one or all of the four states on any given day. There’s massive amounts of oil continuing to be found, both submerged as well as floating around and washing up on land. And people are suffering in a very severe way. And from what I’m seeing, the crisis seems to continue to get worse, more and more people being made sick living along the coast, blaming the use of the dispersants. Meanwhile, BP and the federal government and the Coast Guard and NOAA, among other federal agencies, continue to pretend as though everything’s just fine. And actually, right now, it seems to be the worst I’ve seen it yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s interesting. You spent a lot of time in Mississippi. Haley Barbour, the Governor, what are people’s attitudes toward him, since he’s being talked about as a possible Republican presidential candidate?

DAHR JAMAIL: He’s hated by every single commercial fisherperson I spoke with in Mississippi had nothing but terrible things to say about Haley Barbour. He’s looked upon as an extremely corrupt official. For example, Mr. Bill Walker, the head of Mississippi’s DMR, who opened up the grounds, basically announced last Monday that Mississippi was given $25 million of response-effort moneys, only $500,000 of that has been spent. And he announced that everything’s good, the oil is gone, we won’t be issuing out any more of that money. And that’s being viewed by people in Mississippi as another money grab by Governor Haley Barbour.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Marfa, Texas, has been reporting from the Gulf for the past month. And Ian MacDonald, oceanographer at Florida State University, thanks so much.

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