Crew Trying To Sop Up Spilled Oil

Crews have been working to try to keep the oil mass contained and away from shorelines, where it could severely damage fragile marshlands and harm wildlife. They have been using equipment to try to absorb the oil, burn it off or vacuum it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And as we learn more of that, much more to come, we'll have updates here on MORNING EDITION throughout the morning. You can also follow us throughout the day on Twitter, on Facebook and, of course at NPR.org.

We're also following this fast-moving story. It's the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Up to 200,000 gallons are still spewing into the waters every day, and we're going to talk about the cleanup with NPR's Elizabeth Shogren. She's in our studios live. Good morning.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: We heard yesterday, about the technology of trying to stop the oil spill from BP's CEO. Even as that effort goes on, how do you go about cleaning up the oil that's already on the water?

SHOGREN: It's a huge, huge task and they're going about it a lot of different ways. One, they have these boats with equipment on it, a variety of equipment to actually take the oil off the water. Some of them use a kind of a vacuuming technique and some of them use some absorbent material. Basically, imagine your polyester shirt that once you get a little oil stain on it that oil stain is there forever. They use something like that kind of sucks up the oil from the water.

INSKEEP: I wouldn't know anything about a polyester shirt. But, no, please go ahead, please.

SHOGREN: Well, you've seen them anyway, somewhere maybe.

INSKEEP: Yes, yes.

SHOGREN: And the other thing would be, they'd burn it. They've tried that anyway and they're hoping to do more of that in the future, where they do a controlled burn on the water where they set the water ablaze basically.

INSKEEP: I suppose the problem with each of these methods is that none is totally effective, right?

SHOGREN: Well, none of them is completely effective and all of them are incredibly slow. We learned that after the Exxon Valdez accident, because there was so much oil that wasn't recovered. In fact, less than 10 percent of it was recovered after months of cleanup.

INSKEEP: Now, could these cleanup techniques have any side effects on the environment, even as they're used to try to protect the environment?

SHOGREN: Well, they do, unfortunately. There's something that they used called a dispersant, and that's a kind of chemical that they can either spray from the air over large parts of the water. And this time they're actually even using it under the water near the source of the leaks. They're putting these chemicals called dispersants into the water.

And what they do is they break up the oil kind of like the way your dish detergent that you might spray into your sink breaks up the cloggy bacon grease, if you eat bacon, in your sink. And so that will scatter and cover up those oil molecules, which is something they want to have happen to protect wildlife.

But the problem is when they use this detergent, those chemicals also have toxic things in them. So, imagine that they're squirting this and there's a bunch of, say, blue fin tuna larvae that are in the water near that dispersant. Biologists and ecologists are worried that there could be negative effects from those as well.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm curious; we heard the BP CEO talking about trying things that they'd never ever tried before to cut off this spill somehow, because they're in uncharted territory here. Are environmental groups and authorities talking about making efforts to clean up this spill that have never been tried before, because it's unprecedented?

SHOGREN: Well, in fact, this idea of using those dispersants, this detergent, right near the spill itself, where the oil is coming into the water, they've never done that before in this deep of water, so that is a new thing.

INSKEEP: And we'll find out what the side effects are of that as we go along. Elizabeth, thanks very much.

SHOGREN: Nice to be here. That's NPR's environmental correspondent Elizabeth Shogren giving us the latest on the effort to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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