Oil spill forum tries to answer next steps for Florida

08/19/10 Matthew Cimitile
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Now that the BP oil well has been capped, what are the next steps for Florida? The 2nd in a series of Oil Spill Forums at St. Petersburg College Seminole campus brought together government and BP representatives to discuss the next steps.

It has been a month since oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf, but uncertainty over the future remains. Ray Dempsey, the public affairs and government relations officer for BP in Florida, said that though the oil has stopped, BP will continue to clean up its mess and support the Gulf region.

“While the flow of the well has stopped very gladly on the 15th of July, so more than a month now there has been no oil flowing from the well, the job is not done. And BP is now very much in the midst of preparation for some very long term support and recovery for the Gulf Coast region and even specifically here in the state of Florida.”

Dempsey said BP has supplied resources to clean up tar balls washing up on Florida beaches, provided $40 million to Florida tourism, and will fund a $20 billion escrow account. Like in previous forums, many in the audience questioned the decision-making process to use chemical dispersants on the spill. Dempsey said it was talked about extensively, but BP didn’t have authority to make the final decision.

“Throughout this response, the use of dispersants has been ultimately the decision of the Unified Command. Not any single entity, not any individual part of the team, but through the Unified Command and ultimately by decision of the National Incident Commander. I say that because there are a lot of choices and a lot of tradeoffs to be made in the use and application of dispersants. I believe that the dispersants that was used here, the Corexit, was approved by the U.S. federal government and by EPA for its use. And there were a number of tests as part of the approval process that ensured that was fit for purpose for this kind of response.”

  1. Alan Farmer, regional director of waste management for the EPA, said their tests show oil and dispersant mixtures were no more toxic than oil alone.

“EPA issued a phase 2 dispersant toxicity testing. What we had done, the agency went back and did its own independent testing of 8 dispersants mixed with Louisiana Sweet Crude Oil. The results indicated that the 8 dispersants had similar toxicity to one another when mixed with crude oil. Also, the dispersant and oil mixtures were found to be no more toxic to aquatic test species than the oil alone.”

Farmer added that though the use of dispersants is not the first choice, they must be considered when dealing with oil spills.

“Dispersants should be one of the tools in the toolbox. It shouldn’t be the first choice. In-situ burning and skimming certainly were higher priorities to be used before dispersants. Unfortunately there were conditions due to the weather, chiefly, where in-situ burning and skimming just wasn’t possible, wasn’t working. So a decision had to be made that dispersants would be used to try and protect the valuable marshlands and keep the oil from appearing on the beaches and marshlands.”

Throughout the spill there was skepticism of the estimates of how much oil was escaping. These doubts were renewed with conflicting reports of how much oil remains. BP’s Dempsey tried to clarify why flow was so complicated to estimate.

“From very early on it was really difficult to come up with the right answer and from just a few weeks into the response the accountability for the estimates of the oil flow actually shifted to a task force, an oil flow working group that was put into place by the National Incident Commander. The fact that the estimates evolved from the early numbers of 5,000 barrels a day up to the 35 to 60,000 barrels a day near the end of the flow I think was just an indication of how hard it was to come up with exactly the right answer. At 5,000 feet of water depth the ability to apply instrumentation and apply more manual approaches to metering and measurement were just not practical.”

At the end of the forum, Neil Brown, editor of the St. Petersburg Times, seemed to catch the mood by emphasizing the situation is still uncertain.

“As we go forward, it is a challenge to cover something where the outcome is so uncertain. You saw in today’s dueling scientific report stories. We don’t know yet what is going to happen. We don’t know yet who is right in all the different reports. But there is going to be dueling opinions and sorting that out going forward is key. So there is that great uncertainty that makes it difficult to go forward but we don’t have any intention to shy away from that.”

The 3rd and final Oil Spill Forum will be held in October and focus on solutions to preventing another oil spill event.

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