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Gulf Still Grapples With Massive BP Oil Leak 2 Years Later

April 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Two years after the largest oil leak in U.S. history, the Gulf of Mexico region still struggles with its impact. Jeffrey Brown, David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Garret Graves of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana discuss the state of the Gulf and related industries.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, here in the present, two years on, the Gulf still grapples with the impacts of the BP spill.

These were the sights and sounds of the Gulf of Mexico in its agony, as four million to five million barrels of oil poured into the sea and spread from Louisiana to Florida, endangering wildlife and sullying the coastal wetlands.

It began two years ago today, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in flames. Eleven workers were killed, and the Macondo well began gushing crude from the ocean floor. Now BP is poised to settle with 100,000 individuals and businesses along the Gulf, including 16,000 cleanup workers and coastal residents who submitted medical claims for exposure to oil and chemical dispersants.

On Wednesday, the oil giant formally presented a federal court with a $7.8 billion settlement, which the court must still approve. The amount includes $600 million in fees for several hundred plaintiffs’ lawyers.

BP is also financing a campaign to lure visitors back to the Gulf region.

WOMAN: Come on back to Mississippi.

MAN: Florida.

MAN: Louisiana.

MAN: Alabama.

MAN: The Gulf’s America’s getaway spot, no matter where you go.

WOMAN: So, come on down.

WOMAN: And help make 2012 an even better year for tourism on the Gulf.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the company still faces billions of dollars in potential claims from the U.S. government and the Gulf states, as do its drilling partners, rig owner Transocean and cement supplier Halliburton.

Liability for violating the federal clean water act alone could ring up a $17.6 billion charge. In the meantime, much of the oil appears to be gone, at least on the water’s surface. But questions remain about lingering effects on wildlife.

Dolphins have been dying in the Gulf in elevated numbers, and researchers report fish such as groupers and snappers with open sores and other abnormalities that could be linked to petroleum and other pollutants.

So, what is the condition of the Gulf today?

For that, we turn to David Valentine, professor of microbiology and geochemistry at the university of California at Santa Barbara. He’s made six research expeditions to the Gulf in the past two years. And Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. He’s also the state’s lead trustee for a collective effort by five Gulf states and the federal government to assess the spill’s environmental impact.

David Valentine, I’ll start with you. Give us an overview, first, of the state of the spill area two years later.

DAVID VALENTINE, professor of microbiology and geochemistry, University of California, Santa Barbara: Well, the state of the spill area, we know that there is still significant damage that occurred.

Much of the oil that came out, the roughly five million barrels, much of that went away. It went to the atmosphere. It was degraded by light or degraded by microorganisms. But much of it landed in places like marshes, beaches, the sea floor and the deep ocean. And so there are pockets of damage that are still there.

There are areas that are still seeing the impacts, although maybe not as widespread as had been initially feared.

JEFFREY BROWN: Garret Graves, where do you see the lingering, effects?

GARRET GRAVES, chairman, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana: You know, in terms of Louisiana, we have in excess of 175, nearly 200 miles of our coast that remains oiled, including close to 15 miles of heavily and moderately oiled shorelines in the state.

One of the most frustrating things I think is the fact that even under the federal government’s oil budget report, the last report indicated that you had nearly a billion — excuse me — a million barrels of oil that remain unaccounted for in the Gulf of Mexico.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, staying with you, Garret Graves, what kind of impact does that have along the coast in particular?

GARRET GRAVES: Well, we’ve seen acres and acres, miles and miles of coastal wetlands. We have found thousands of birds. We have recently seen hundreds of dolphins and other mammals that have been impacted. So we’re seeing a number of impacts in specific areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Valentine, what about — pick up on that — the question of the dolphins, the question of fish that I raised in our setup, this potential abnormalities. How much is really known about the cause?

DAVID VALENTINE: Right now, not a lot.

The issue that we’re facing is that we’re now looking very carefully at the state of the ecosystems in the Gulf. And we’re seeing a lot of problems and these are a couple examples. Deep-sea coral would be another exam.

The problem is that we didn’t have sufficient baseline information to tell us what the condition was really like beforehand. And so the problem that we are currently facing and we’re going to face for some time is to pick apart the — these issues and figure out how much of this is really caused by the Deepwater Horizon, how much is caused from other issues, be it other oil exploration, activities or just other things that are happening in the Gulf.

So we have to make the link. And that’s where things stand right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how does that work go on? What kind of research does that entail?

DAVID VALENTINE: Well, it’s research that has to be specific to the questions that are being raised.

And so, in this case, you know, we’re talking about a number of different things. Each one has to be looked at individually, you know, what are the real incidents, how do they relate to the oil, and then studies have to be designed to go out and look very carefully at the causative factors, trying to isolate them.

It’s difficult. It’s doable in some cases, but very difficult, especially if there didn’t happen to be existing data from before the spill.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Garret Graves, where do questions like that leave folks in Louisiana especially either making a living or living, period, along the coast? What kind of questions are still out there?

GARRET GRAVES: Well, you know, when you start seeing these anomalies like the dolphins, you see the anomalies like the coral and many of the other assessments that have come out that you mentioned earlier, the grouper and the snapper, and some of the lesions that have been reported on those fish, you begin seeing these anomalies and you start trying to put that picture together on what the overall health of the Gulf is.

And at this point, we don’t know. After some of the other oil spills, it’s taken five or even 10 years to accurately quantify what’s happened with the Gulf of Mexico. What we’re doing to help the fisherman is that we are testing the seafood. We’re testing every piece of consumable seafood — in fact, it’s the most tested seafood in the world — to make sure that it doesn’t cross the thresholds of safety for consumption that the FDA has set.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, David Valentine, one of the questions — one of the questions we all looked at a couple of years ago was the dispersants question.

What — what is known at this point about lingering impacts from that, the use of dispersants?

DAVID VALENTINE: Well, you know, the dispersants were applied initially in two very different sorts of ways.

One was a dispersant application at the surface, something just over a million gallons of it. And this was to prevent rafted oil slicks at the surface from making it ashore and hitting beaches harder than they already were hit. The other form that the dispersant was applied in was at that ruptured wellhead. It was sprayed directly in, about 770,000 gallons of it.

And those were made for very different reasons. The — at the wellhead, it was being added in order to prevent health problems in the workers above. And, anecdotally, we still don’t know if that was really the right decision or not. It was made at the time based on people’s observations that it made conditions better.

Now, two years later, we still don’t have a lot of answers. We know that we made those decisions. We know why we made them. We know where much of that dispersant went. And we were able to show that the stuff added in the deep, it stayed in the deep. But we don’t know what the effects were.

And that’s going to be a very difficult issue to pick apart. And it’s going to require substantial amount of study over time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Garret Graves, what is the state of the coordination of looking into all of these things? You are representing your state. You are part of this coalition of — in the region. Who is doing what at this point and how much cooperation is there and is it still working with BP at this point? How does it all work?

GARRET GRAVES: Well, the states and the — and two federal agencies, the five Gulf states and two federal agencies have a trustee council, a group representatives from each of the states and from the Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce that are collectively working together.

We have literally hundreds of different assessments that are under way. We have taken thousands of samples across the Gulf in various forms to try to begin painting that picture of the Gulf and the Gulf’s health and the Gulf’s productivity.

As noted, we have seen some anomalies. We have seen anomalies in different areas. And we’re trying to draw conclusions to help understand what exactly is going on with the overall productivity and overall health of the Gulf.

While the seafood we have tested so far has been safe, we are trying to work to determine the productivity levels of the Gulf to ensure that the shrimp production, the oyster production, the finfish production come back up to the levels that were in place prior to the spill, to ensure that the fishermen, to ensure that the restaurants all have a bright future in the Gulf.

One of the challenges is, is that if you look at an example like Valdez, it took nearly four years after the spill to see the herring fishery collapse. That was an unanticipated impact of the spill. So we have got to be very careful to not draw premature conclusions, to not try and close the book on this too early in terms of grading the overall health of the Gulf.

So this is a very thorough process and we are working through a very accurate assessment process to ensure we know exactly what has happened as a result of this spill.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just briefly, David Valentine, it’s a sort of awful way to learn things, but can anything be said about what scientists have learned from this experience at this point?

DAVID VALENTINE: Yes.

I think this was in many ways a forbidden experiment, something that scientists would never think to do, but that industry in this case did for us. And I don’t want to call it a bright spot, but we have certainly been able to learn a lot about how nature works. And we have really been able to focus also on how the Gulf of Mexico operates as a system because of the attention that has been given to this area and the resources that have now come in to looking at ecological issues here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Valentine and Garret Graves, thanks so much.

GARRET GRAVES: Thank you.

DAVID VALENTINE: Thank you very much.