Experts: Most of Gulf of Mexico oil spill won't be cleaned up
Despite BP's efforts, only a small percentage of the oil from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will be cleaned up, say experts.
BP is attacking the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on all fronts, from the traditional skimmers and booms to more advanced technologies. But history and science suggest this clean-up effort probably won't end in a spotless environment.Skip to next paragraph
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BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said the company would do "everything in our power to contain this oil spill and resolve the situation as rapidly, safely and effectively as possible," according to news reports. The company, which was leasing the Transocean oil rig that exploded and sank on April 22 in the Gulf, is responsible for the clean-up.
And yes, all hands are on deck – skimmers, booms, domes, controlled burning and chemical dispersants – to try to clean up the 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day estimated to be leaking out of the well.
However, for an oil spill at sea, typically only 10 to 15 percent of the oil is recovered, Gerald Graham, president of Worldocean Consulting, a marine oil spill prevention and response planning firm based in British Columbia, told LiveScience.
So far, BP claims it has recovered 685,062 gallons (more than 2.5 million liters) of an oil-and-water mix. That mix is almost entirely water, with oil stirred in like vinaigrette. Until the entire recovery process finishes, it will be impossible to tell how much crude oil BP has recovered, Graham said.
The rest of the oil that doesn't get cleaned up evaporates, breaks up and floats on the surface, or sinks to the bottom, Graham said.
"It's kind of overwhelming," U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory Mendenhall said of the cleanup effort.
"A lot of it cannot be collected," Mendenhall said. "95 percent [of the oil] is a rainbow-y sheen. It's too thin to scoop up. Most of that breaks up naturally, so about 3 percent of the oil is what people think of as big globs of oil that you can skim off the water. Now, how much of that 3 percent has been collected is still unsure."
History attests to the lingering problem of oil spills. Exxon Valdez, one of the worst oil spills ever, dumped more than 10 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989. And there's still a lot of oil that didn't get cleaned up, which has continued to impact wildlife in the area for the past 20 years, experts say.