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Oil in gulf is degrading, becoming harder to find, NOAA head says

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 10:56 PM

Oil from the BP blowout is degrading rapidly in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and becoming increasingly difficult to find on the water surface, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

"The light crude oil is biodegrading quickly," NOAA director Jane Lubchenco said during the response team daily briefing. "We know that a significant amount of the oil has dispersed and been biodegraded by naturally occurring bacteria."

Lubchenco said, however, that both the near- and long-term environmental effects of the release of several million barrels of oil remain serious and to some extent unpredictable.

"The sheer volume of oil that's out there has to mean there are some pretty significant impacts," she said. "What we have yet to determine is the full impact the oil will have not just on the shoreline, not just on wildlife, but beneath the surface."

But much of the oil appears to have been broken down into tiny, microscopic particles that are being consumed by bacteria. Little or none of the oil is on seafloor, she said, but is instead floating in the gulf waters.

Her conclusions come from the work of several NOAA boats now collecting water samples, as well as the analysis of academics brought in to help study the spill effects. The goal, she said, is to get a scientifically sound assessment of the overall environmental effects of the spill.

"To do this, we're working with the best scientific minds in the government, as well as the independent scientific community, to produce an estimate of just how much oil has been skimmed, burned, contained, evaporated and dispersed," she said. "We're getting close to an answer."

Lubchenco also said that five boats are now patrolling the gulf for sea turtles, scores of which have been found dead on shorelines. She said the rescue teams had caught 180 turtles that appeared to be stressed by oil, and that 170 are now in successful rehabilitation.

NOAA has been at the center of several disputes about what has been happening to the oil from the BP well. Early reports by university scientists of large plumes of oil moving below the water's surface were generally dismissed by NOAA, and the agency has also determined that the sea turtles and sea mammals that washed up onshore after the spill do not appear to have died from the oil. These conclusions have led some to charge NOAA is underestimating the spill's environmental damage.

A significantly more optimistic assessment of the environmental effects of the oil well blowout came Tuesday from Edward Owens, who worked with Exxon for four years on the Alaska-Valdez spill and who has been hired as a consultant to BP. Owens was quoted by AFP as saying the fragile Louisiana marshes would be close to pre-blowout condition within months and that the environmental impact on the gulf as a whole would be "quite small."

Lubchenco rejected the sanguine conclusions of a BP restoration consultant. "Anyone who classifies the results of the accident as anything less than catastrophic has not been watching," she said.

Federal officials do agree, however, with the assessment of BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who told investment analysts Tuesday, "it is increasingly difficult to find oil in sufficient quantities to skim or burn."

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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