Challenge of cleaning up Gulf of Mexico oil spill 'unprecedented' at such depths

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

ELMERS ISLAND, LA. -- The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not yet caused coastal damage on the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster. But scientists say it is becoming something different and potentially much more troubling: the first massive U.S. oil spill whose effects so far are largely hidden underwater.

Three weeks after crude oil began billowing into the gulf, the spill has threatened the long-term livelihoods of thousands of gulf residents, enmeshed three major global companies in litigation and could destroy parts of Louisiana's ecologically valuable marshes.

The 1989 Valdez accident looks simple by comparison. No one questioned the cause -- an Exxon tanker that ran aground -- and the oil was released in one enormous but finite swoop into Alaska's pristine and remote Prince William Sound.

Now there seems to be much more blame to spread around, whether it's aimed at oil company BP, rigs operator Transocean, cementing company Halliburton or the Obama administration, which has come under fire for failing to prevent the spill and for its response to what National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco calls "an unprecedented, dynamic challenge."

Because the accident happened in the gulf's crowded commercial corridor, the impact could be much more costly and damaging.

With a half-dozen probes underway, lawmakers and outside groups are questioning who in the corporate and federal world is at fault and to what extent these officials might have vastly underestimated the seriousness of the spill's impact.

Because of the leak's extreme depth, and the effects of dispersants, the spill is breaking the maxim that oil floats. Instead, scientists fear it is settling on sensitive corals or poisoning ecosystems that produce shrimp, snapper and sport fish, all too deep for scientists to watch or help.

"This monster's turned invisible," said Plaquemines Parish President William "Billy" Nungesser on Thursday. "How do you fight that monster when it's invisible?"

The spill's impacts on underwater creatures might not be fully understood for years, said Ronald J. Kendall, a professor at Texas Tech University. "It's a massive eco-toxicological experiment underway."

The unusual behavior of the spill has left the Gulf Coast in limbo since April 22, when the burning Deepwater Horizon oil rig finally sank more than 40 miles off Venice, La. The oil, squeezed by intense geologic pressure, has been spewing out of the broken-off drill pipe at a rate that has defied estimation.

The leak appears to be growing far faster than the original estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. Some experts say the rate could be as much as five or 10 times that.

So every day, the threat hanging over Louisiana's coast gets bigger. But every day, the punch doesn't come.

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