BP Oil Still Ashore One Year After End of Gulf Spill

BP oil spill
Pools of crude oil float on the surface of Gulf of Mexico waters at the site of the sunken BP/Transocean oil drill the Deepwater Horizon as seen from the deck of an emergency oil-skimming response vessel on April 27, 2010. Photographer: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

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, government officials 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 National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, said in an e-mailed message. A total of 1,074 miles has been oiled since the spill began, he said.

“The bulk of the work is picking up tar balls on the beaches,” U.S. Coast Guard Captain Julia Hein, the federal on-scene coordinator of the cleanup, said in an interview today. “The stuff is nontoxic. It’s more of an eyesore.”

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.

The latest survey in Louisiana by the agency found 5 miles of beaches and 8 miles of marsh heavily oiled, according to results provided by Zink. The July survey by the oceanic agency covered almost 4,300 miles of shoreline in the four states.

Submerged mats of congealed oil, often resembling a mousse, are a source of the tar balls, Hein said. The areas with the most oil are Louisiana coastal marshes, she said.

Drilling Standards

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. They rose 1.05 pence to 459 pence today in London.

BP plans to implement Gulf drilling operating standards that exceed U.S. regulatory requirements, according to a statement today. 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.

“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.

1,260 Workers

How long the BP oil will persist, the extent of damage it has caused and how much it may yet inflict is still being studied. A government estimate found about 1.1 million barrels of oil unaccounted for after adjusting for amounts that were recovered, dispersed into the sea, burned and evaporated as of July 14, 2010, Ben Sherman, a spokesman for the oceanic agency, said today.

The Coast Guard said 1,260 people remain employed in spill cleanup as of yesterday, down from a peak of 48,200 a year ago.

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 the amount that escaped during the 87-day spill. The well began spilling into the Gulf after Transocean Ltd.’s rig exploded and sank 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. The leak was stopped on July 15, 2010, and the well was plugged by cement and declared dead by the government on Sept. 19.

Spill Volume

The volume of oil spilled into the Gulf is key to determining the size of penalties that may 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 couldn’t account for may have settled to the bottom of the sea or remain suspended in the water as tar balls that eventually wash ashore, the oceanic agency said.

Residual oil may persist for years, said Ian MacDonald, a professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric science, at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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 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.

‘Get a Picture’

“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. The oceanic agency is investigating a surge in deaths of baby dolphins along the Gulf Coast during the spring calving season, Zink said.

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