Mississippi leaders: Spill's environmental impact overhyped

Biloxi Sun-HeraldAugust 9, 2010 

The best-case scenario for Mississippi and the region is that once BP's busted well is plugged, the warm waters and bacteria of the Gulf will dispose of the oil quickly, breaking it into its main components of carbon and water, and normal life and commerce on the Coast can resume.

Gov. Haley Barbour, and the chiefs of the state's two main environmental agencies — the Departments of Marine Resources and Environmental Quality — have proposed that this natural cleanup, along with some relatively minor scouring of tar off the beaches by BP workers, can be handled in a matter of weeks or a few months, not years.

“That oil might be degraded all the way to CO2 and water in a matter of weeks,” said DMR Director Bill Walker. “It might be six weeks, might be 10 weeks, but we are not talking about years.”

The it’s-not-so-bad crowd says the media and environmentalists have overhyped the environmental impact of the BP disaster, especially for Mississippi. The Magnolia State, thanks to geography, weather and tides, has been spared heavier oiling seen by its sister Gulf states.

State, federal and BP officials and some scientists have said that fears of long-lingering environmental and health effects, such as those seen from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, are unfounded. That was heavy crude, they say, not light-sweet crude as from the BP well, and the Gulf can break down oil quicker than the colder, confined waters in Alaska.

Barbour, DMR Director Bill Walker, DEQ Director Trudy Fisher and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant have all described the oil and tar that has made its way to Mississippi waters and shores as "nontoxic." Barbour said the "first cuts," or volatile chemicals in the crude such as benzene, evaporate quickly near the well site and that the oil that makes it further into the Gulf is "emulsified and weathered."

The federal Centers for Disease Control has reported that air tests in the area for benzene, a potentially harmful volatile chemical found in crude, have shown no levels higher than normal.

Walker says that tests of seafood tissue in Mississippi have “never had a positive hit” for oil contamination. Walker, and a NOAA scientist, say that petroleum hydrocarbons do not “bioaccumulate” and are quickly metabolized and excreted by fish and other species. NOAA scientist Buck Sutter, in a letter to Walker, said, “I don’t think (petroleum hydrocarbons) being passed through the food chain is an issue.”

Walker said Gulf shrimp have been safe to eat all along, and the ban on catching them has been based on bureaucracy, not health hazards.

“I don’t believe the scientific community as a whole finds anything too dangerous or toxic about a tar ball,” Walker said.

Barbour has also said the risk to wildlife from oiling is not as bad as some have been saying.

“Once it gets to this stage, it’s not poisonous,” Barbour said. “But if a small animal got coated enough with it, it could smother it. But if you got enough toothpaste on you, you couldn’t breathe.”

Federal leaders have downplayed, or avoided, questions and concerns about the unprecedented use of dispersant chemicals. Federal administrators have said dispersant is, at worst, the lesser of two evils and has helped break the oil down.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko recently described the analysis NOAA is conducting to determine the fate of the oil that has spewed into the Gulf.

“NOAA scientists are deployed throughout the Gulf helping to assess where the oil has gone, where it will go and to determine the extent of the damages to the Gulf seacoast system,” Lubchenco said. “We know that a significant amount of the oil has disbursed and been biodegraded by naturally occurring bacteria. While there’s more analysis to be done to exactly quantify the rate of biodegradation, early indications show that the light crude oil is being, is biodegrading quickly. When oil is dispersed into smaller bits from the use of dispersants or by weathering it’s even easier for the bacteria to get to it and to consume it.”

For the most part, Mississippi officials have been complimentary of the job BP has been doing since the disaster. Walker has referred to the company as a “partner.”

Barbour, despite politics the opposite of the Obama administration’s, has not been critical of the federal response, either, even at times when local government leaders have been.

“After Katrina, I understand what it’s like to deal with something the likes of which no one has ever had to deal with,” Barbour said. “I understand you make mistakes. We made mistakes and had to do some things over. I make it my business not to criticize somebody else, particularly when you’re not to the end of the story.”

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