Special Reports

NOAA chief: Gulf spill has strained our resources

MIAMI — After four cruises into the oil-stained waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a team of federal scientists Wednesday released a report confirming what other researchers concluded weeks ago: “The preponderance of evidence” points to BP’s ruptured well as the source of massive undersea oil plumes.

But after two months, what’s happening with the diffused clouds drifting beneath the floating goo, sticky tar balls and shimmering surface still remains murky. It could take several more months for the federal agency in charge of assessing spill damage to simply get a good grasp of how much oil remains drifting below.

During a stop in Miami, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — criticized by some scientists for being slow to jump into the Gulf disaster — said federal assessment efforts were making significant headway. But she also acknowledged the Gulf spill, unprecedented in both volume and complexity, had strained the agency’s resources and technology.

“That oil that is below the surface is much more challenging to get a handle on,” Lubchenco said. “It will continue to be an ongoing effort to understand where it is and in what concentrations, what the source is and what impacts it is having.”

But even without complete understanding, she said, it was clear the Gulf would be suffering after-effects for years, perhaps decades — and not just in salt marshes and estuaries, where the struggles of tarred pelicans make impacts gut-wrenchingly clear.

Oil is dense near the leaking wellhead, she said, but shows up miles away in concentrations that, though invisible in a sample jar to the naked eye, remain potentially lethal for many organisms in the open ocean, she said.

“We have very grave concerns about the impact this massive infusion of oil is going to have on the Gulf ecosystem,” she said. “”It can be a problem for the microscopic critters in the water column. Oil is nasty stuff. It’s highly toxic.”

Lubchenco, who spoke with McClatchy Newspapers after attending a climate change meeting in Miami scheduled before the Gulf disaster that now dominates her agenda, is a respected and accomplished marine ecologist and environmental scientist.

As an Oregon State University professor, she served on numerous national science boards and specialized in climate change issues. Her appointment by the Obama administration to serve as NOAA’s first female administrator won wide praise from environmentalists and fellow academics.

But the agency has drawn fire from some Gulf scientists, echoed by some congressional members, who have contended the agency was slow to tap its expertise, slow to dispatch research vessels and — most critically — slow to push BP for flow rate data that would have more quickly shown the blowout to be a disaster of historic proportions.

In briefings with media, NOAA’s chief also has been cautious, particularly early on. She called claims of the first discovery of the massive undersea plumes last month by researchers from the University of Georgia “premature,” saying more tests were needed to verify the chemical signature of the oil to separate it from what naturally seeps into the Gulf.

The new federal study, the first peer-review analysis of suspended oil from the spill, largely validates other researchers’ earlier findings.

It doesn’t explore the potential impacts of the plume but, even without chemical fingerprints, points to BP’s mile-deep well as the source. It also finds that oil, much of it in tiny droplets, “appears to be chemically dispersed,” suggesting that the controversial chemicals BP pumped into the deep sea flow could be contributing to the undersea clouds.

Lubchenco defended NOAA’s response, saying the agency’s oil spill office in Seattle had produced spill tracking maps within two hours and 17 minutes of receiving a report of the Deepwater Horizon explosion from the Coast Guard.

NOAA, which handles 200 spills a years, was prepared, she said. But the uncapped and continuous flow, the challenges of depth and pressure and the massive economic ripple effects on fishing and tourism have presented daunting, unforeseen challenges, she said.

The agency has pulled in staff from across the country and brought people out of retirement to handle the crisis.

“It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort for NOAA,” she said. But, she added, “It really is pushing the envelope in terms of our ability to stay on top of this burgeoning crisis.”

Though it took time to ramp up, she said the agency pushed hard to more quickly and fully share spill data on its website and was getting a better handle on flow rates critical to understanding how much oil is on the surface or elsewhere. It may take years or decades of studies to fully gauge the environmental impacts of the spill, she said.