NOAA Confirms Underwater Oil Plumes Oil from the BP spill is slathering some areas in a tarry mess while leaving others unscathed, and officials confirmed Tuesday that plumes are also lurking in the deep even as a device collects more crude gushing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
NPR logo NOAA Confirms Underwater Oil Plumes

NOAA Confirms Underwater Oil Plumes

The cap over a broken BP wellhead at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is collecting more gushing crude day by day, but that's about the extent of the details known as authorities try to pinpoint how much oil is escaping, where it's going and what harm it will cause.

The recently installed containment cap on the stricken BP wellhead is helping to limit the leak, collecting more than 620,000 gallons of oil Monday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Tuesday in Washington. Still, underwater video feeds continue to show a dark geyser.

"I have never said this is going well," said Allen, who's monitoring the response effort for the government. "We're throwing everything at it that we've got. I've said time and time again that nothing good happens when oil is on the water."

Authorities had earlier reported that the cap collected around 460,000 gallons Sunday and that it was capturing anywhere from a third to three-quarters of the oil spewing out after a damaged riser pipe was cut as part of the containment effort, increasing the flow as a side effect.

The drill ship Enterprise is now pulling up as much oil and gas as it can handle. BP plans to put in place a second system, which can process an additional 5,000 barrels a day, later this week.

BP says it still doesn't know how much oil is leaking from the well -- it could easily be more than these two ships can handle. So the company is bringing in another vessel to increase its ability to capture the oil and burn off the gas.

In Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, accused the company of "deliberately lowballing" the size of the spill in order to hold down its legal liability.

"Right from the beginning they got lawyered-up," he said. "They were told not to tell the truth about the larger amount of oil that was going out there, but that had huge consequences in the amount of boom that was made available, the amount of protection that we were giving to the workers out there, the amount of chemicals that were shot into the ocean."

Markey said he has an internal BP document from the first week of the spill showing the company estimated the oil gusher was producing up to 14,000 barrels a day.

"They kept telling the American public it was only 1,000 barrels a day, and then they raised it to 5,000," he said. "They are now pulling up 10 to 12,000 barrels, and we can still see the gusher going up in the bottom of the ocean."

A member of the Coast Guard team that's trying to determine how much oil is still leaking told The Associated Press it's possible that estimates the team will generate could be higher than current government estimates.

The team member, University of Texas engineering professor Paul Bommer, said he understands why people might wonder why BP didn't try the cap sooner, especially now that it appears to be doing its job.

"Hindsight is always 20/20," Bommer said. "I think we have to give some credence to the notion they were trying to make things better without making things worse."

BP announced plans recently to swap out the current cap with a bigger one next month that can capture more oil, raising questions about why such plans weren't in place at first as a backup.

"I know it takes some time to fabricate these things," Bommer said. "It's not something you just go to Wal-Mart and buy."

The success of the containment system siphoning off oil from the leaking well, which has produced the nation's largest oil spill, is limited by how tightly the cap sits over it and the ability of ships on the surface to process the oil it traps.

To deal with more oil, BP PLC is preparing to use an EverGreen Burner made by Schlumberger Ltd., Schlumberger spokesman Stephen Harris said. The device turns oil and gas into a vapor that is burned.

BP spokesman Mark Proegler said the company has not decided whether to use the burner.

Bommer's team, the Flow Rate Technical Group, includes federal scientists, independent experts and academic researchers, and its projections could ultimately be used to penalize BP judging by how much oil escapes.

BP CEO Tony Hayward is scheduled to testify before a congressional committee June 17 about the company's role in the April 20 rig explosion, which killed 11 workers.

Hayward enraged many when he later said, "I'd like my life back," and is sure to receive pointed questions from lawmakers about the cause of the accident and the response to it.

Allen said Tuesday that he would meet with BP to assess how well it is handling claims for relief from people hurt by the spill.

The aim is "to see if we need to provide any oversight," he said, noting that "working claims is not something that's part of BP's organizational competence here."

At a briefing in Washington, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenko, said tests confirmed the existence of underwater oil plumes drifting in the Gulf. Scientists from the University of South Florida found oil 40 miles northeast of the well and as deep as 3,300 feet below the ocean's surface.

"We remain concerned about the location of oil on the surface and under the sea," she said. "We are attacking it aggressively to mitigate the harm and to understand the impact."

Lubchenko said the oil's chemical fingerprint proved it was coming from BP's ruptured well. The samples show that concentrations are very low -- around half a part per million. BP had raised doubts about whether the subsurface plumes existed.

Researchers won't be able to definitively connect the undersea plume to the well until they can compare the samples.

David Hollander, an oceanographer with the university, said he was rebuffed by BP officials when he tried to get a sample of oil coming out of the wellhead.

"I tried to get a piece of the oil from a BP representative and it was met with resistance. He barked severely," he said.

BP officials did not return a call for comment.

On the surface, oil is washing up thick in some areas, leaving others relatively unscathed, and playing hide-and-seek in others. The spill's fickle nature was evident this week near the Alabama-Florida state line.

On the Alabama side on Monday, oil-laden seaweed littered beaches for miles, and huge orange globs stained the sands. But at Perdido Key, on the Florida side, the sand was white and virtually crude-free.

On Tuesday morning, though, the Alabama side looked markedly better, with calmer seas, signs that cleanup crews had visited and sticky clumps of oil no longer clinging to washed-up seaweed.

At hard-hit Barataria Bay, La., just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews ramped up coastal restoration efforts that were already under way, and work is planned in coming days with BP's announcement that it would begin paying.

As the sun rose there Tuesday, marsh islands teemed with oily brown pelicans and crude-stained white ibis. The birds inadvertently used their oiled beaks like paint brushes, dabbing at their wings, as the brown goo bled into their feathers.

Some struggled to fly, fluttered and fell, while others just sat and tried to clean themselves, squawking and flapping their wings. Dolphins bobbed in the oily sheen nearby.

Fishing guide Dave Marino looked out over the water in disbelief and disgust. The 41-year-old firefighter has been fishing these waters for 20 years.

"I'm an optimistic guy, so hopefully it doesn't just overwhelm the entire system," he said. "But if it continues to go on and the oil keeps coming in, eventually the balance is going to tip. Then what happens? Is it all over?"