Well Plugged, Washington Breathes Sigh Of Relief

Oil is no longer flowing from BP's damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico. The well was plugged with mud, and the federal official overseeing the cleanup says he has given BP permission to reinforce that move by pumping cement into the well from the top. The operation is scheduled to begin Thursday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Now that the oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf, we can begin to assess the damage.

INSKEEP: While that oil well was flowing, the spill felt like a total catastrophe. Today, political leaders and people who depend on the Gulf try to get back to normal.

MONTAGNE: Elsewhere in today's program, we'll hear from the seafood industry. Those who make a living from it are trying to persuade consumers that Gulf seafood is safe.

INSKEEP: We begin in Washington, where the political damage has rivaled the environmental effects.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: For President Obama, the Gulf oil spill has been a political thorn. The administration has been criticized for the speed of its response and its struggle to reform the government agencies responsible for overseeing offshore drilling. So while the White House didn't fly the mission accomplished banner, relieved administration officials were eager to declare a limited, qualified sort of victory.

Among them was Dr. Jane Lubchenco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lubchenco said that as a direct result of what she labeled very robust federal response efforts...

Dr. JANE LUBCHENCO (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): The vast majority of the oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed and recovered from the well head or dispersed, and much of the dispersed oil is in the process of relatively rapid degradation.

NAYLOR: According to a White House report titled "What Happened to the Oil," the rest, about 26 percent, either remains on or below the surface, or has washed ashore in tar balls or is buried in sand and sediments.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said things could have been a lot worse.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): It is fairly safe to say that because of the environmental effects of Mother Nature, the warm waters of the Gulf and the federal response, that many of the doomsday scenarios that were talked about and repeated a lot have not and will not come to fruition because of that. I think that is - it very good news.

NAYLOR: Officials insisted they were not painting rosy scenarios, and that the data used to make their claims about the oil had been subject to peer review. They also caution the long-term effects of the spill remain uncertain. One of the concerns is the lingering effects of oil on the Gulf's wildlife. As an example, NOAA's Lubchenco pointed to blue fin tuna, which spawn in the Gulf at this time of year and whose eggs or larvae would have been in the water while oil was present.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: If those eggs or larvae were exposed to oil, they probably would have died or been significantly impacted, and we won't see the full result of that for a number of years to come.

NAYLOR: Another question is the environmental and health effects of the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant BP used to break up the oil. Lawmakers are considering legislation to study and/or limit the use of dispersants. At a Senate hearing on the matter yesterday, Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said the widespread deployment of the chemicals in the Gulf amounted to a grand experiment.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): And we still know very little about the long-term ecological impact of using so much dispersant on top of so much oil.

NAYLOR: Among those testifying at the hearing was assistant EPA administrator Paul Anastas. He said the EPA had conducted tests on eight different dispersants and found they were no more toxic when combined with oil than the oil was alone. Nor, he says, do the dispersants appear to be drifting ashore from areas near the well, where they have been most heavily used.

Mr. PAUL ANASTAS (Environmental Protection Agency): There have been thousands of samples both near shore and off shore and we are not seeing the dispersants away from the wellhead.

NAYLOR: But other witnesses said that as with the oil, it may be generations before the long-term effects of the dispersants on wildlife or humans will be fully known.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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