Gulf oil spill: The story so far
The effort to contain the Gulf oil spill has had more twists and turns than a mystery novel. This rundown of events so far also shows what is ahead in the struggle to clean up the Gulf of Mexico.
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On May 11, Secretary Salazar announced a plan to reform the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that has overseen the oil industry. Part of the problem was that MMS received royalties from the very oil companies it was charged with regulating. The Obama administration wants to split these functions – oversight and royalty collection – into two separate agencies.Skip to next paragraph
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On May 27, Mr. Obama announced a six-month moratorium on leases for deep-water drilling. Obama called this a necessary "pause" while his presidential commission considers what safety measures need to be introduced or strengthened.
On June 22, however, a federal judge struck down the moratorium, which Louisiana had said was costing its vital offshore oil industry as much as $330 million a month. The Obama administration will argue its appeal of the decision on July 8.
How are dispersants being used?
The use of chemical dispersants in oil spills is considered by many experts to be the lesser of two evils. But never before have dispersants been used on such a scale. As of Monday, 1.58 million gallons of a dispersant called Corexit had been used both on the surface and at the well.
This has made scientists even warier of the effects that dispersants might have on marine ecosystems. In particular, Corexit is less effective and more toxic than 12 other brands on the market, according to tests by the Environmental Protection Agency.
On May 20, the EPA told BP to scale back its use of dispersants at the surface, and it gave BP 72 hours to begin using a more effective and less toxic brand. BP has not complied.
Four Gulf fishermen have filed a lawsuit against BP, arguing that Corexit is four times more toxic than the oil itself.
What is the impact on wildlife?
The Gulf oil spill has long since surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the biggest nonland oil disaster in US history. Yet in terms of wildlife killed, the Gulf spill is dwarfed by the Exxon Valdez. As of June 29, 1,165 seabirds, 436 sea turtles, and 51 mammals had been found dead in the Gulf. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez left at least 35,000 seabirds and 1,000 otters dead.
The difference is that the Gulf oil spill is happening in the open ocean, 50 miles from the coast and a mile deep. The Exxon Valdez ran aground much nearer shore and in a far more confined area.
Some scientists worry that this means the greatest ecological impact of the Gulf oil spill is unseen, below the surface. Researchers have found tenuous plumes of diluted oil far from the well, and even low concentrations of oil or dispersant could be toxic for tiny animals crucial to the food chain, they say.
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