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Oil Spill: White House on Defense as Management Criticism Mounts

5 years ago
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One month after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, as hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil continue to flood into the Gulf of Mexico, the situation just keeps getting messier. This week, the Obama administration came under fire for its handling of what some have posited may be one of the worst environmental disasters in the modern era. In congressional testimony on Wednesday, leading scientists criticized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for "failing to conduct adequate scientific analysis of the spill and allowing BP to obscure the spill's true scope." At present, there is still no confirmed estimate of how much oil is flowing into the Gulf, with estimates ranging from 5,000 barrels to 70,000 barrels a day.

Pressed for a response as to why the administration has not been more forceful in demanding an accurate analysis of the oil flow, on Thursday White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "There are people that are looking at that. I assume, quite frankly, there may be different estimates at different times . . . Our response is not predicated off of the flow. It is predicated off of the notion that you have a catastrophic event." He further alluded to the difficulty of assessing the flow, saying, "You're talking about an incident that is 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea, and a well that is an additional four miles below that one-mile surface."

A spokesman for BP explained the difficulty in assessment by saying, "Introducing more equipment into the immediate vicinity [of the leak] would represent an unacceptable risk."

The size and scope of underwater oil plumes resulting from the leak remain unclear as well. Questioned as to why the White House had not pressed BP to be more transparent with its information, Gibbs responded, "We are asking for them to provide the data, put it on a Web site, update that Web site daily, provide whatever access they have to video . . . to the government and to the public. We think that is what the company owes both us and the American people." The same day, BP released live video of the leak showing striking imagery of oil gushing from the sea floor with little in the way of stoppage.

The treatment of the spill itself has raised serious concerns. Having already dumped 655,000 gallons of the chemical dispersant Corexit into the Gulf to break down oil flowing from the well, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday demanded that BP switch to a less toxic dispersant. The EPA and the White House backed off any suggestions that the use of Corexit poses possible public health risks, despite the fact that the substance is banned from use in the United Kingdon due to its high toxicity and lower efficacy.

In a press release Thursday, the EPA stated: "BP is using [Corexit] in unprecedented volumes and, last week, began using it underwater at the source of the leak -- a procedure that has never been tried before. Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized for use." Gibbs echoed these points, saying, "Given the extent to which we are having to continue to use [dispersants], to use the least toxic of those makes the most sense."

Meanwhile, independent toxicology experts have asserted that Corexit is "a deodorized kerosene -- a substance with health risks to humans as well as sea turtles, dolphins, breathing reptiles, birds, and any species that need to surface for air exchanges."

If only it ended there. On Wednesday, NOAA reported that a light sheen of oil from the disaster had reached the Loop current, which carries water from the Gulf around the tip of Florida and up the eastern coast of the United States, possibly affecting coastal communities up and down the seaboard just as peak beach season begins.

Many have claimed that the chemical dispersants, which break the oil down into smaller molecules and allow it to disperse into seawater, have obscured the true magnitude of the spill. Not so in Louisiana, where heavy oil has been found seeping into the state's wetlands. On Wednesday, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced, "The oil is here," pleading with the Army Corps of Engineers to begin dredging along the coast.

This comes amid reports that chemicals used in the cleanup are making local Louisiana fishermen ill. One local fisherman who works in the area said: "It was like sniffing gasoline or something, and my ears are still popping. I'm coughing up stuff. I feel real weak, tingling feelings."

With whispers about contamination and obfuscation, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) this week suggested a possible coverup on the Deepwater oil rig disaster. Asked about this on Thursday, press spokesman Gibbs responded, "The notion of a coverup is ridiculous."

Click play below to watch video of the leak from the AP:

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