Crude oil continues to wash ashore along the Gulf of Mexico coast a year after BP PLC stopped the flow from its damaged Macondo well, which caused the worst U.S. offshore spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
About 491 miles (790 kilometers) of coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were contaminated by BP oil as of July 9, the last available tally from field inspections, Tim Zink, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mailed message. A total of 1,074 miles has been oiled since the spill began, he said.
The U.S. government estimates that 4.9 million barrels were spilled into the Gulf from Macondo after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010. BP, based in London, succeeded in capping the flow a year ago today.
“I’d characterize it as a light sheen and tar balls of all shapes and sizes,” Zink said in an interview yesterday. “For roughly the first year, it was heavy, moderate to light oiling. This is light.”
Still, the latest survey in Louisiana found 5 miles of beaches and 8 miles of marsh heavily oiled, according to results provided by Zink. The July survey covered almost 4,300 miles of shoreline in the four states.
The pollution of Gulf Coast beaches is one of several headwinds BP faces as Europe’s second-largest oil company seeks to rebuild its business and reputation in the U.S. The U.K. producer’s shares remain about 30 percent below the pre-spill price and have gained 13 percent since the spill ended.
BP announced today Gulf drilling operating standards it said exceed U.S. regulatory requirements. The practices include third-party testing of blowout preventers, the valve assemblies designed to shut out-of-control wells, in addition to independent testing of cement used to plug wells, according to a statement.
“BP’s commitment in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon incident is not only to restore the economic and environmental conditions among the affected areas of the Gulf Coast, but also to apply what we have learned to improve the way we operate,” Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley said in the statement.
How long the oiling will persist, the extent of damage it has caused and how much it may yet inflict is still being studied. A November government estimate, disputed by BP, found about 1.1 million barrels of oil unaccounted for after adjusting for amounts that were recovered, dispersed into the sea, burned and evaporated into the air.
The oceanic agency is investigating a surge in deaths of baby dolphins along the Gulf Coast during the spring calving season, Zink said.
As of June 7, 1,162 people were still employed in spill clean-up, the U.S. Coast Guard reported, down from a peak of 48,200 a year ago. William Benson, a Coast Guard spokesman in New Orleans, said officials weren’t available to discuss the clean-up efforts.
Compounding the difficulty of calculating how much oil may remain to wash ashore or harm wildlife is a dispute between BP and the U.S. over how much escaped from the well during the 87- day spill. The Macondo well began spilling into the Gulf April 20, 2010, after Transocean Ltd.’s rig exploded and sank 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. After stopping the leak on July 15, 2010, the well was plugged by cement and declared dead by the government on Sept. 19.
The volume of oil spilled into the Gulf is key to determining the size of penalties that might be levied against the company for potential violations of U.S. environmental laws. The catastrophe killed 11 rig workers, injured 17, destroyed the $365 million rig and shut thousands of square miles of fishing grounds for months.
BP has said the U.S. government’s estimate of 4.9 million barrels overstated the spill. BP said in its 2010 annual report that the spill probably was closer to 4 million barrels, of which 850,000 barrels were captured, burned or skimmed off the water.
The 23 percent of the oil the government can’t account for may have settled to the bottom of the sea or remain suspended in the water as tar balls that currents eventually wash ashore, the oceanic agency said. The estimate hasn’t been revised, said John Ewald, an agency spokesman.
No ‘Comprehensive’ Studies
“We really didn’t mount the comprehensive kinds of sampling studies or mappings required to better assess where the oil was distributed initially and where it eventually ended up,” Robert Weisberg, a professor of physical oceanography at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, said in an interview yesterday.
Tom Mueller, a BP spokesman, didn’t respond to questions about the company’s estimate of spillage or damage. Payments for damage claims and cleanup costs reached $6.57 billion as of July 7, according to a BP website.
The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, funded with $500 million from BP in payments spread over 10 years, announced $1.5 million of “stop-gap” grants for oil sampling June 30. The Initiative is reviewing another round of proposals for work to be done beginning in September, according to its website.
“There will be additional work done,” Weisberg said. “These monies will do more to prepare us for some subsequent environmental assault than shed much light on the Deepwater Horizon event. It’s a little too late.”
‘Get a Picture’
The government has collected 44,800 samples as evidence for a National Resource Damage Assessment, Zink said. The NRDA is an official determination of the damage BP caused, which will be the basis for fines to be levied. It includes 17,365 sediment samples and 12,647 from water, he said.
“We’re starting to get a picture of the damage that was done,” Zink said. “At the end of the day, it’s a legal case.”
BP in April agreed to fund $1 billion of restoration projects, and an initial restoration plan may be released this year after consultation with the trustee council for the oil spill, comprised of two federal agencies and representatives of the affected states, Zink said.
Seafood harvested in the Gulf of Mexico is safe, the government declared in a March 4 statement. A third of the Gulf was closed to fishing at the height of the spill.
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