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One month after Gulf oil spill, damage remains uncertain

A month has now passed since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, spilling at least 5,000 barrels a day into the fragile waters along the Louisiana coastline. Officials from BP say they are siphoning about 3,000 barrels of oil a day from the Gulf, and expect to have the leak fully contained within a week.

After multiple attempts to cap or close off the blown-out pipe, BP will now implement what has been called a “top kill” or “dynamic kill” procedure. The maneuver, as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar explained to CNN, involves filling the well bore with “mud,” which could fully plug the leak by cementing it shut:

Salazar said BP, which leased the rig from Transocean, has tried many techniques to stop the leaking, and the government will do everything in its power to hold them accountable.

“They’re putting a lot of hope on that Sunday,” he said. “We’ll see if it happens.”

The extent of the damage caused by the accident remains uncertain. The Associated Press reported on Thursday that oil from the spill had begun to cover the marshlands along the Louisiana coast, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that a small portion of the oil slick had been entrained in the Loop Current 150 miles off Florida’s coast.

According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, commercial fishermen are already feeling the pain:

Their losses stem from the federal government’s closure of fishing in the loop current late Tuesday and the false perception that Florida’s beaches and fishing hot spots have already been fouled by oil.

At an emergency meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, charter boat operators complained of cancellations from customers worried about the oil’s impact, while commercial fishermen feared for the future health of fish populations.

Meanwhile, oceanographers have criticized the administration and BP for not providing a full and accurate account of the spill. One engineer told NPR that the actual amount of oil gushing out into the Gulf could be 10 times as much as official estimates:

Using a well-established scientific technique to measure flow from the biggest of three leaks near the seafloor, he determined that the flow coming out of the end of the pipe could be 10 times the size of the official figure.

Wereley has now analyzed video of a second leak. At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, he said that leak alone appears to be bigger than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

“What I get is 25,000 barrels a day coming out of that tiny hole — that’s a 1.2-inch hole,” he said, adding that it seemed “incomprehensible.”

Despite knowing for some time how such a spill would play out, scientists say federal officials have been ill-prepared to map and track the massive oil plumes floating through the deep ocean. According to The New York Times, the toxic chemicals could have a catastrophic impact on marine life:

Mr. Steiner said the likelihood of extensive undersea plumes of oil droplets should have been anticipated from the moment the spill began, given that such an effect from deepwater blowouts had been predicted in the scientific literature for more than a decade, and confirmed in a test off the coast of Norway. An extensive sampling program to map and characterize those plumes should have been put in place from the first days of the spill, he said.

“A vast ecosystem is being exposed to contaminants right now, and nobody’s watching it,” Mr. Steiner said. “That seems to me like a catastrophic failure on the part of NOAA.”

For more on the extent of the spill, the response from oil executives and the potential ecological impact, see Need to Know’s previous coverage:

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