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.
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"Despite spending $2 billion dollars and using every known clean-up method there was, they recovered 8 percent of the spilled Exxon Valdez oil," said Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.–based ocean conservation organization. "That is typical of these exercises when you have a large marine oil spill. You're doing really great if you [get] 20 percent."Skip to next paragraph
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Cleanup under way
So far, the most effective method has been chemical dispersants. Least effective: booms, according to Mendenhall. Here's what's being done to capture the oil:
Chemical dispersants: About 100,000 gallons of chemical dispersant has been dropped from the air into the Gulf, where it breaks up the oil slick into smaller droplets. The droplets then get mixed into the water, where they are subjected to ocean currents and natural degradation processes, according to the Minerals Management Service (MMS). "This potentially exposes the water column and near shore shallow bottom-dwelling organisms to oil," according to MMS.
Skimmers: Once broken up, skimming vessels come in and collect what's left. The droplets are collected in drums and some of that material gets cleaned and recycled. The rest is "properly disposed," Mendenhall said. But skimmers can only capture about 10 percent of the volume of spilled oil, according to Charlie Henry of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Controlled burn: On Wednesday, BP and the Coast Guard, along with other agencies, conducted an in-situ burn in which they used a fireproof boom to corral dense parts of the oil spill, moving it to another location and then burning it.
In general, burning is probably the most effective method for cleaning up heavy oil like that leaking in the Gulf, according to said Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University. But it has drawbacks. When you burn near the coast, you have to destroy wildlife, and offshore burning is harder to do.
"I have no idea what we're going to do, this is trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t work," Overton said. And news reports suggest since the oil is really an oil-water mix, burning actually might not do the trick.
Collection domes: BP has also started to put together a subsea oil collection system, and when used will be the first time this shallow-water technology has been adapted for the deep water. The oil leaks in the Gulf are nearly a mile down. It is expected to be ready for deployment within the next four weeks, according to BP.
When ready, here's how the oil-spill technology would work: The dome would be placed on the seabed to capture the leaking oil. This oil would then be pumped up to surface vessels that could collect the oil and take it away. Similar systems have been used in shallow water, but never at depth of 5,000 feet. The Coast Guard has said the construction could take two to four weeks.