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Gulf Faces Long Road to Restoration From Oil Spill

June 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Federal officials said the amount of oil escaping into the Gulf of Mexico is beginning to slow, but the cleanup and restoration will likely span years. Gwen Ifill talks to two environmental experts about efforts to mitigate the damage.
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GWEN IFILL: The Gulf oil slick extended its reach today, staining beaches from Louisiana to Florida. Officials said cleaning up the spill will take months and years.

Oil continues to lap at the shores of the Gulf Coast today, as BP and federal officials announced the amount of oil escaping from the broken well on the ocean floor is beginning to slow — 452,000 gallons were collected Sunday and pumped to a ship on the surface. That is up from 250,000 gallons a day last week.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: Sir.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant: Thanks, Robert. Appreciate it.

GWEN IFILL: At the White House today, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal effort, said a second ship is on its way.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: BP anticipates moving another craft in that can actually handle additional production. And the combination of these two — the vessels is actually called a Q4000 — combined will have a production capability of about 20,000 barrels a day.

GWEN IFILL: But Allen said government scientists have not yet settled on a firm estimate of how much oil is actually flowing from the wellhead.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: We’re no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill. We’re dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions. And we’ve had to adapt, and we need to adapt to be able to meet that threat.

GWEN IFILL: Allen said about 100 large ships and 1,500 small fishing boats are now involved in the cleanup, skimming and, in some locations, burning oil from the surface. For fishermen, up and down the coast, that help can’t come soon enough.

DAVE MARINO, fisherman: The area we’re in right now, this is some of the best fishing in the whole region. And it’s — and the oil’s coming in, just wave after wave. It’s hard to stomach. It really is.

GWEN IFILL: And for swimmers in Pensacola, Florida, there were signs the oil is seeping ever closer.

WOMAN: I got a tar ball on my leg today while I was swimming at Pensacola Beach. I didn’t expect this when I came to Florida.

GWEN IFILL: The impact on wildlife continues to grow. At a bird clean facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, veterinarian Sharon Taylor said the damage to wildlife is more widespread than it even appears.

SHARON TAYLOR, veterinarian, U.S. Fish and Wildlife: This is an unprecedented spill. We have never seen anything like this. And this is a fragile ecosystem. It is a marsh ecosystem. It is very challenging to get in and clean, you know, or to deal with. And it is. It is a travesty. I have small children. And my children ask me, can’t they turn it off?

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, President Obama said government efforts are working.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This will be contained. It may take some time and it’s going to take a whole lot of effort. But the one thing I’m absolutely confident about is that, as we have before, we will get through this crisis.

GWEN IFILL: The president also predicted that the region would bounce back once the cleanup is complete.

For a closer look at the scope and the complexity of that cleanup effort, we turn to Ralph Portier, a professor of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University’s state School of the Coast and Environment, and Aaron Viles, campaign director for the gulf Restoration network, an advocacy group.

Ralph Portier, Professor Portier, I want to start with you.

What will it take for the Gulf Coast, to as the president put it, bounce back?

RALPH PORTIER, professor of environmental sciences, Louisiana State University: Well, fortunately, we are not like Alaska. We are in a nice warm climate, ideal for the environment to slowly, but quickly, more quickly than not, recover.

Oil is biodegradable, particularly this oil. And so, if we manage the microbiology, we manage the approaches to cleanup, I think it’s very possible that we will turn this around quicker, rather than longer.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by particularly this oil? What is it about this kind of oil?

RALPH PORTIER: Well, in oil spills we have worked on in the past, we have worked with heavier grades of crude oil, lots of heavy ends, we call it, asphalt.

This particular oil doesn’t have as much asphaltanic material in it. So, that means, as a whole, most of the oil as it comes to shore, almost all fractions of it can be degraded. And that’s very important.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Viles, I’m curious if you agree with that about the nature of this kind of oil. And, also, how do they begin to clean up a spill like this? How should they be beginning to clean up a spill like this?

AARON VILES, Gulf Restoration Network: Well, the problem with this spill is that it is stretching over such a broad expanse. We have so many different habitats types that are being exposed. Clearly, Louisiana’s marsh is a — it’s a tricky area to clean.

You can’t get into that area. You shouldn’t be walking around through it to try to access the oil. So, we will need to be flushing it out to — pushing it into absorbent boom. And then, as it stretches on into the August and even in the early winter, perhaps some burning, burning the actual marsh grass could help. As it is over in Alabama and Florida, the physical removal process is easier.

You can actually just pick it up with a physical process like shovels, et cetera. But we have also got eggs out there. Turtles are nesting at this time of the year, so that’s a challenge. It really is a mess. And while clearly the type of oil is maybe better than they experienced up in Alaska 20 years ago, the type of habitats that we are dealing with are far more diverse and, unfortunately, a bit more sensitive.

Louisiana’s marsh isn’t doing well now. We are losing 25 square miles every year of Louisiana coastal wetlands, in part because of oil and gas activity. This is likely going to speed that up.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Portier, when Thad Allen, Admiral Allen, said today that this is like a massive collection of smaller spills, instead of a single big spill, does that change what you do to help clean it up?

RALPH PORTIER: It does because normally we have operated from a position of having a finite amount of oil, so we know what we are totally dealing with.

Here, as we mentioned earlier, we have repeated oiling events. And, so, the ability to clean an area particularly in our coastal marshes in South Louisiana, knowing that additional oiling will probably occur as we go through the summer, late fall and even early winter months, the strategy has to be very flexible in order to take advantage of the climate, take advantage of areas that are not oiled, protect them once we clean them, and then have a very aggressive strategy of going after oil, areas that are repeatedly oiled.

GWEN IFILL: Repeatedly oiled, but when — so that — so, when Admiral Allen says things like we’re dealing with — I think the words, we’re adapting to an enemy that’s changing, that is what he’s talking about. You can clean it today and it will be back tomorrow.

RALPH PORTIER: Correct.

One of the challenges of Alaska, of course, was the sheer amount of real estate that had to be cleaned. But it was one event. It was a single oiling event. Here, we anticipate oiling for months, really. And so when we have a very fragile ecosystem like the coastal environments of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, we have at different times of the year fresh insult — insults of fresh oil, of weathered oil coming in, that poses real challenges in terms of the nursery and the life cycle of particularly the commercial fisheries in our area.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Viles, we have learned a lot in the last several weeks about burning and skimming and booms and chemical dispersants. Is that the full panoply of options open for this kind of cleanup?

AARON VILES: Unfortunately, yes, by and large. I mean, clearly, they can vacuum some of the oil up as well.

But we don’t have a lot of tools in our toolbox, unfortunately. And they’re really the same tools we have had since the Valdez 20 years ago. They didn’t work terribly well there. So, this is one of those things that I think is most concerning, is that, as we have moved into deeper and deeper waters and pushed the envelope as far as the drilling and how to get it, more and more remote fields, we haven’t really done anything to keep up with the cleanup and containment technology.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a health hazard involved in this cleanup for the people who are actually doing the cleanup?

AARON VILES: Oh, absolutely. And I have talked to friends of mine who are shrimpers who are in the Vessels of Opportunity program who are getting sick and who are exposed to the dispersant. They’re exposed to the oil.

They are in really just a giant science experiment out in this marsh area and are reporting the health impacts directly. So, that is a big problem. And I think we need to be far more active at making sure that those Vessels of Opportunity program, that the shrimpers and the out-of-work fishermen who are being put to work to protect their marsh have the property safety gear.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Portier, we know we have been comparing this to Alaska, to the Exxon Valdez, to Mexico, both shallower water spills, more contained spills. But, even looking back on those now, can we say they were ever completely cleaned up?

RALPH PORTIER: No, they were not.

And if you look at the data, particularly in Alaska, better than 50 percent of the oil is still there. It’s just below the surface, where the microbial community will slowly, but surely degrade some of it, but not all of it.

Not mentioned a minute ago is bioremediation as a tool for cleaning up oil spill. That essentially is what happened in Alaska. That’s what happened at Ixtoc. And, more likely, that will be…

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean?

RALPH PORTIER: The use of microbial populations to degrade the oil. Oil is just carbon the wrong place. And microbes, the degraders in the carbon cycle, will attack that oil.

And if you optimize the setting in which this attack takes place, you can get significant reductions. Our group at LSU has for years been using bioremediation methods for Superfund sites and other industrial sites.

GWEN IFILL: Even at great depths?

RALPH PORTIER: So, this is the type of strategies we will need to use here as well.

GWEN IFILL: Even at great depths? That seems to be the thing that confounds so many people, that this is a mile underwater.

RALPH PORTIER: Well, at great depths, we’re — we’re focusing on looking at the microbial community that is viable at depth with — with the dispersed oil.

That research has just started at LSU. We hope to get a better answer for it. But with oil coming ashore, oil coming particularly into our marsh habitat, where you have, as mentioned, a very difficult environment, you can’t walk in it, you can’t disturb it, but you want to protect the root systems, which, of course, keeps our wetland in place.

As mentioned, we lose well over 25 square miles of wetland a year. And rather — not allowing for additional erosion and loss to the Gulf of Mexico, the microbial component chewing away at that carbon as quickly as possible will protect those root systems and allow for that wetland to have at least a chance of not being washed out to sea.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.

And, Aaron Viles, finally, do you anticipate that this is the kind of damage that is going to be difficult to assess long-term, because, as Professor Portier says, it may be there long term?

AARON VILES: I think ultimately this is going to be a years and decades problem, not a weeks and months problem. But it will be a challenge to assess the ongoing impact.

What I know is that shrimper friends of mine who are out there in the areas they’re shrimping find oil from spills from time to time, because it is stuff you are not going see. It is not in the marsh. It is not on the beaches. It is not areas you are going to be able to get at and clean it up. It is going to be in the bottoms of these areas. And that is going to be a real problem for quite a long time, I think.

GWEN IFILL: Something we will be monitoring for quite a long time.

Aaron Viles and Paul — Ralph Portier, thank you both very much.

AARON VILES: Thank you.

RALPH PORTIER: You’re welcome.