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Scientists: Bacteria Consuming BP Oil

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Scientists: Bacteria Consuming BP Oil

Environment

Scientists: Bacteria Consuming BP Oil

Scientists: Bacteria Consuming BP Oil

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Government scientists say they are seeing a zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has below-normal levels of oxygen. That indicates bacteria in the area are consuming some of the oil that spewed from BP's well.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Plugging BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico was difficult enough, now come the challenges of the spill's aftermath, such as, how do we measure the health of waters in the Gulf now? And who pays for research to assist the impact on wildlife?

BLOCK: First, to the latest news on the BP spill. Government scientists say they're seeing a zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has below-normal levels of oxygen. That indicates bacteria are out there consuming some of the oil that spewed from BP's well. These findings are part of a report released today, and NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us to talk about it.

And Richard, there have been confusing, sometimes contradictory reports over the last month about the oil. We heard federal government officials saying that the oil is mostly gone from the gulf. How did these latest findings fit in with that?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, they underscore the fact that the oil is clearly not gone. But it does suggest that the Gulf seems to be on the mend. Now, these oxygen samples don't tell us exactly what's up about the oil that spilled, but they do provide some important clues because bacteria that eat oil also consume oxygen in the process.

And so if you see less oxygen in the water, that means the bacteria are out there eating oil. And that seems to be exactly what they're seeing. A 20 percent decrease in the amount of oxygen out there is an indication that the bacteria have plenty of oil to eat, and they are eating it.

BLOCK: So oxygen levels down, but not to the point where this would be considered a dead zone?

HARRIS: Absolutely not. Yeah. This is far from shore, so there's no threat to beaches, for example. And as for fisheries, the low oxygen level here is quite deep underwater. It's not where fishermen go out to catch fish. And in any event, the levels are not low enough to be considered one of these dead zones, an immediate threat to life.

However, that said, the broader ecological implications of this aren't really clear yet. Oil, after all, is poisonous, and there's some out there. It may have killed a lot of fish larvae during the time that it was out there. And so there could be some damage that we just won't see for a couple of years until that whole crop of fish that should've appeared doesn't appear. Then we'll know, you know, more about the ecological impact.

BLOCK: Now, the BP well stopped gushing oil back in mid-July. There was news over the weekend from the well site itself. Tell us about that.

HARRIS: That's right. Over the weekend, BP finally removed the blowout preventer that failed as part of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That's now in federal custody. It's evidence in part of the investigation to figure out exactly what went wrong. They put on a new blowout preventer since then. And the central pipe in the middle of the well is filled with a plug of cement that's 5,000 feet long, and that has clearly done a good job of holding the oil in place and -during this entire operation.

But it's not the final word. BP still needs to do something more to -just to be sure that they are not going to have any oil ever come out of this well. They're talking about pouring more cement down the relief well that's drilled and very nearly connected to the old well, and federal law also requires that there needs to be a second cement cap near the top of the well before BP can actually step back and abandon the site altogether. And we may see more activity on these fronts later this week.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Richard Harris, thanks much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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