Experts Say Oil Cleanup Will Probably Take Years

BP says the effort to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be "largely complete" by the end of this year. But with the ruptured well still gushing crude, federal officials, scientists and many Louisiana residents say they'll be mopping up oil for years.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep, with Deborah Amos.

We're going to look this morning at the fallout from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is dominating hearings on Capitol Hill, as we'll hear in a moment. Also, BP's stock plunged to a 14-year low yesterday. Investors wondered whether company could pay for mounting cleanup costs.

BP says most of the costs should be taken care of by the end of 2010, but experts say if history is any guide, the cleanup will be measured in years.

NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: Rick Steiner roars through Barataria Pass off the southern Louisiana coast. Rust-red slicks of crude oil swirl past the bow of the inflatable skiff. For two decades, Steiner was one of the lead biologists studying the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. He's an environmental activist now, working with Greenpeace. He suddenly realizes that we're surrounded by a pod of bottlenose dolphins.

Dr. RICK STEINER (Conservation Specialist, Greenpeace): And these dolphins are all being exposed in the water. They get it in their eyes. They ingest it. Sometimes they actually even inhale it. So they're all being dosed.

(Soundbite of helicopter engine)

MANN: The chopper rumbles overhead, part of the massive effort now underway to sponge, suck, skim and shovel up all that oil. We can see dozens of shrimp boats using their booms to gather surface oil. A small army of workers patrols the beach in white contamination suits.

After the Alaska spill in 1989, Steiner says this kind of full-court press went on for years.

Dr. STEINER: In Prince William Sound, they had to do three summers worth of cleanup, and then they realized that there was no net environmental benefit to continuing.

MANN: The debate over how long this cleanup should go on is likely to get complicated. BP has already spent a billion dollars responding to this crisis. In an interview with BBC television last Sunday, CEO Tony Hayward promised to do whatever it takes to make the Gulf Coast clean again.

Mr. TONY HAYWARD (CEO, British Petroleum): That's an absolute commitment, and we will be there long after the media is gone making good on our promises.

MANN: But BP has also predicted that major expenses for the cleanup and oil removal will be finished within six months.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen seemed to agree, suggesting that large-scale cleanup operations might end as early as this fall. Then, in a briefing at the White House on Monday, he offered a clarification.

Admiral THAD ALLEN (U.S. Coast Guard): Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months. After that, it'll be taken care of. I agree with you. Long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years.

MANN: Some leaders along the Gulf Coast say BP and the Obama administration have tried to downplay the magnitude of the cleanup.

Representative STEVE SCALISE (Republican, Louisiana): They have underestimated this from day one.

MANN: That's Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise.

Rep. SCALISE: And they don't realize how long-lasting this cleanup could be. I think it could be a long time. I hope they cap the well tomorrow. But if they do, you've still got six weeks of oil in Gulf that are going to continue moving onshore.

MANN: One of the big questions here is how clean the Gulf should be, or can be, when this is over. All those workers are removing a lot of toxic oil, but they're also tromping over sensitive habitats, disturbing shorebirds and turtles and other wildlife. At some point, that does more harm than good.

Dr. Moby Solangi heads the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi. He says scientists aren't sure yet how to define success.

Dr. MOBY SOLANGI (President, executive director, Institute for Marine Mammal Studies): They might be able to take care of the superficial - you know, the tar and all that that's obvious. But what they're looking for is a lot of the issues in the food chain and the eco system. It's going to take quite a bit of time, quite a bit of study before we can give it a green light.

MANN: This question of how long the cleanup might take isn't just academic. The tourism and fishing industries along the Gulf Coast are in limbo, hungry for solid information about when their lives might get back to normal.

Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen's Association(ph), says he's not optimistic, especially if hurricanes push the oil further into coastal wetlands.

Mr. BYRON ENCALADE (President, Louisiana Oysterman Association): It could be years and years, especially in the oyster situation, where you would never be able to fish oysters with chemicals coming off the land, on high tides that would come in. You'd have that oil constantly going over those oyster beds.

MANN: In Alaska, survey crews still find pockets of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez, and scientists still debate whether that cleanup ended too soon. The recovery here might be helped by the fact that the Gulf is much warmer and the oil from the Deepwater Horizon much more dispersed. That means in time, more crude will simply dissolve away into the air and water.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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