Most Gulf Oil Is Out Of Site But Not Out Of Mind

At the end of a week in which the Gulf oil leak was finally plugged, Morning Edition is asking about how much damage it really did. The government this week suggested things weren't so bad. Independent scientists aren't so sure. The spill has definitely affected tourist along the Gulf Coast.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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

At the end of a week in which the Gulf oil leak was finally plugged, we're going to ask how much damage it really did. This week, the government suggested things weren't so bad. Independent scientists aren't so sure. We're going to get the fullest picture we can from two NPR correspondents. And we begin this morning with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, who's in our studios.

Richard, good morning once again.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And one of the reasons I wanted to bring you guys back is that I think that there were many people who felt almost clinically depressed about this oil spill as it went on through the spring and the summer - just felt horrible. And suddenly now, the government says things aren't as bad as you thought. Should we feel any better?

HARRIS: Well, we should feel better to some extent. I mean, there's not a huge pile of oil out there on the water threatening to come in and wash over our beaches and marshes yet again. But obviously, that's also a huge amount of damage that's been done, and it's still there. So I feel a little bit better, but I also think that, you know, there's still a lot of oil out there.

INSKEEP: And explain this to us again. I know you've mentioned this on the air before, but the government gave this figure of 75 percent of the oil has disappeared, has evaporated, has diffused. Does that really mean that that 75 percent of the oil has just vanished, is no longer there?

HARRIS: Absolutely not. And, in fact, once - that was sort of the political spin from the White House. Once the scientists in this administration came in, they gave a much more realistic figure. And if you actually read the scientific report that they issued, really, there's still a lot of oil that's out there somewhere. And they can't account for it.

That doesn't necessarily mean it's gone at all. In fact, there's probably a huge amount of oil that's still under the water. And we don't know exactly what it's doing. It's probably unlikely to wash up on the beaches, but it could be killing fish larvae. It could be doing all sorts of things like that.

INSKEEP: It's not an oil slick somewhere. It's diffused, which is why they say it's gone.

HARRIS: Right.

INSKEEP: But I was thinking about air pollution. You don't actually see most air pollution, but they have a measurement of, like, parts per million. If there's a percentage of pollution out there, it's bad for you. I wonder if there's some percentage of the Gulf that's oil at the moment that can be measured.

HARRIS: They are trying. But, you know, they have a relatively small number of research vessels out there taking water samples, and so on. And the Gulf is a big place. So this is going to be an ongoing effort to figure that out. I mean, that is, really, the big question. Bacteria do eat oil, and they will degrade the stuff eventually. But we have no idea at what rate that is happening.

Those measurements have not been made in any really reliable way. And that's really the question. I mean, we don't know how much of that oil's still out there. If, you know, if the most optimistic projections are out there, maybe a lot of it's already been eaten up.

But I've talked to biologists who said maybe, you know, five or 10 percent may have been eaten up, but the rest is probably still out there.

INSKEEP: So we don't have to feel as horrible as we did, but there's a lot of unknowns here.

Let me bring another voice into the conversation. NPR correspondent Debbie Elliott has been covering this story. She's on the line from Orange Beach, Alabama on the Gulf Coast.

Debbie, good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What real effects - real effects now have you been seeing as you travel up and down the Gulf Coast in recent days?

ELLIOTT: You know, I have to - we have to be really clear here that it depends on where you are. There's a real sense of frustration that the national media has painted this with one big, broad brush and that there's globs of oil everywhere you look. And that's just not the case.

For instance, I was in Pensacola yesterday and the beaches there, you know, from Pensacola all the way into Alabama look beautiful when you just glance out over and look at the beach. There's white sand. The water's beautiful. There's no evidence of oil in the water.

But you walk a little closer, you get up into the tide line where the waves have washed up onto the sand, and you look and there are fine, tiny little almost the size of, say, peppercorn pieces of oil that have been mashed into the sand.

INSKEEP: Tar you're talking about here?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, little tar balls. And there are people who are here trying to get that cleaned up as fast as they can. But it's there. You move a little bit further to the west, over in Louisiana, the impact is much different - thicker places where oil has washed into the marsh and is stuck there and is having an impact.

So it just depends on where you are, what you see. And certainly, you're not seeing it at the levels that we saw it, say, a month ago, when there were actually big puddles of what they called pudding-like or mousse-like substance coming and washing up onto beaches.

INSKEEP: I suppose the one thing that is consistent all along the Gulf Coast is the very real effect on tourism. People haven't wanted to go do there recently.

ELLIOTT: Certainly. And driving yesterday along the road on the beach, you could just look into the parking lots that are less than half empty. Beaches - one public beach in Perdido Key, Florida that would normally just be packed here the last few weeks of the summer, there were two cars in the parking lot. Certainly, people are not here.

INSKEEP: Richard Harris, there was much concern about a mass kill off of wildlife, especially birds, from this oil spill. Has that happened?

HARRIS: In terms of body count of birds, no, compared to, say, the Exxon Valdez spill, which killed hundreds of thousands of birds. The count here is in the thousands - at least carcasses that have been recovered.

And this is partly because the spill was very far off shore, and that cuts both ways. There may be smaller bird populations. It also may mean that there are many carcasses that never washed ashore, that were just simply lost at sea. So the body count may not be a very accurate count either. But no, that turned out to be not the most horrific part of this spill.

INSKEEP: Seafood?

HARRIS: Seafood, well, a lot of fishing grounds were closed, as a result of the spill. And that certainly has economic impacts that Debbie can talk about.

ELLIOTT: Mm-hmm.

HARRIS: I think the real question about seafood is this oil in the water is toxic, and we just don't know how many fish larvae it's killed. This is breeding areas for blue fin tuna, for example. And we won't know for a couple of years, until those populations are big enough to catch. You know, what happened to them? You know, the fishing issues are going to be, you know, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

INSKEEP: Debbie, what real...

ELLIOTT: And, you know, certainly...

INSKEEP: ...economic effects are there. Yes.

ELLIOTT: Well, it's sort of follows in something Richard said. The fishermen here are very concerned about what's happening in the Gulf. You know, a lot of them are not fishing now; certainly some places have been reopened over in Louisiana, but Alabama and Florida fishermen are still at the dock. And they're concerned what's happening with oxygen levels in the Gulf.

You know, and Richard can talk a little bit more to this, since he has the science expertise. But the oil is eaten up by - in the Gulf - and that sucks up oxygen and that could affect fish larvae.

HARRIS: That's right. Yeah, that is definitely a concern. They have not yet found levels of oxygen depletion big enough to cause a massive concern about that for fisheries, but that oil is still out there. The bacteria are still out there. And that's a critical question that they're following, will the oxygen levels continue to decline and will that be enough to kill fish down there in the Gulf?

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Richard Harris here in Washington, NPR's Debbie Elliott on the Gulf Coast. Couple of quick questions before I let you both go.

During this spill - here's another perception - it seemed like BP engineers, oil industry engineers, had absolutely no idea what to do. They seemed completely overwhelmed by this disaster. Should we re-evaluate their performance, now that this spill has been cut off?

HARRIS: Well, they did at the initial moment, know what to do, which was start to drill a relief well and they did that. And they started almost immediately. That was the surefire thing to do it. And then - but they knew that would take 90 days to succeed. And with all that oil spewing out, no one wanted to just sit there for 90 days.

So they started trying things that were, in retrospect, pretty dopey - this just trying to just capture the oil coming out the end of the pipe and so on. These were just, you know, quick things not likely to succeed but certainly not likely to cause any problems. And so they started with the easy, stupid, silly things first, which were not working, and they got progressively more complicated.

So this top kill idea of trying to pour mud in the top of this flowing well, again, many engineers thought, well, that's crazy - oil is coming out so fast that'll never work. But in the process of doing that, they actually got enough data about the condition of the well that then they realized, hey, we could actually bolt a cap onto to this well. And we will be fairly confident that we won't do serious damage.

So some of the failures were things they learned from, and ultimately became the base of the success that we've now had in this week.

INSKEEP: Debbie Elliott, in a few seconds, are people on the Gulf Coast re- evaluating the performance of the government, which also seemed at loss at times?

ELLIOTT: There's still a good bit of frustration and skepticism. When the government says something, people say, well, wait a minute, you weren't straight with us from the beginning; you didn't seem prepared for this; we're going to wait. We want to know what the long term impact is, and we want to see that you really do stay here and help this region recover before we're going to pass judgment.

INSKEEP: Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott on the Gulf Coast in Orange Beach, Alabama. She was joined by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris here in Washington, D.C.

Richard, thanks to you.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue to give you more information about the affects of the spill as we learn it.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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