Gulf Cleanup Could Go beyond 2011: U.S. Experts
    2010-06-19 08:57:46     Xinhua      Web Editor: Jiang Aitao
 

A frame grab of a live video stream of operations to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen on June 17, 2010. [Photo: CFP]

Special: Oil Spill Impact

by Matthew Rusling

Although it remains unknown when the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico can be plugged, efforts to clean up the massive BP oil spilled so far could continue until 2011 and well beyond, some experts said.

Rick Steiner, a conservation consultant and former professor at the University of Alaska, said efforts to clear the waters, marshes and beaches of oil could take until next year.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that every trace of the BP spill will be mopped up, as some oil from the 1989 Valdez spill, which took three seasons to get rid of, remains on Alaskan beaches after more than two decades, Steiner noted.

Mark Zappi, dean of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's College of Engineering, said the length of the cleanup hinges on when the leak is plugged.

A ruptured oil well off Louisiana's coast has gushed an estimated 500,000 to one million gallons (one U.S. gallon equal to 3.785 liters) daily for eight weeks.

A containment cap, installed on June 3, is collecting oil and gas flowing from the offshore well and transporting them to a ship on the surface, according to BP's website, but crude continues to escape. The company began siphoning oil from a second containment system on Wednesday, the site said.

If the leak is plugged within the next month, cleanup efforts could take up to 2012, but pockets of oil could remain for years afterwards, said Zappi, who is involved in the cleanup effort.

The length of cleanup operations also depends on where the bulk of the oil ends up. Crude washing up on sandy beaches with many waves is more biodegradable, whereas the sticky gunk now seeping into marshes is much harder to get rid of, he said.

Tar balls are beginning to wash up on Florida's shore and scientists said the spill could travel further north to the Carolinas.

Scientists and officials said the spill could be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and exceed the damage caused by the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident that leaked an estimated 10.8 million U.S. gallons on to the shores of Alaska.

Oil could damage marshlands --habitats for many birds and important to Louisiana's most commercially valuable fisheries. While the area marks only a small portion of the surrounding vegetation, the oil is difficult to clean up, Steiner said.

Birds can die from ingesting the toxic liquid while cleaning it from their feathers and can go blind if oil leaks into their eyes, as was the fate of many seals after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Oil in birds' wings also prevents them from flying.

Six hundred animal species are at risk, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, including more than 400 fish species and 100 kinds of birds.

Offshore, the pelagic ecosystem is in danger, as its host of fish eggs and larvae in their most vulnerable life stages are sensitive to contamination, Steiner said.

The Gulf of Mexico's deepwater coral reef and the "cold seeps"-- where the sea bed emits natural methane and gas-- have spawned many organisms that are also in danger, although some may prove more resilient to the oil because they live on hydrocarbons, Steiner said.

More than two decades after the Exxon spill, two-thirds of the injured population of fish and birds in that area have yet to fully recover, he said.

Some disagree with that assessment, however. Ben Lieberman, a specialist in energy and environmental issues at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said the area impacted by the Valdez spill recovered more quickly than many had forecast and many gloom and doom predictions never came to pass.

Scientists said oil could spread with the arrival of hurricane season, which is just around the corner, and the spilt crude could travel wherever a storm surge takes it-- even to the area around New Orleans, for example.

Despite good intentions, cleanup efforts can sometimes do more harm than good, Zappi said.

"In many cases you have to be careful because the cure can be more harmful than the disease. A lot of heavy traffic and heavy machinery can damage the marsh more than medium to low levels of petroleum," he said.

Steiner said three years after the Valdez spill, authorities determined that the response was causing more harm than good-- there was so much intervention that all the business in the area was preventing species there from recovering.

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