By David Hammer / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - With Hurricane Isaac battering coastal Louisiana, state officials are concerned about the remnants of oil from the 2010 BP spill being churned up and tossed into flood waters.
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness is asking residents to report any oil, oily material or oiled debris immediately to the National Response Center at 1.800.424.8802 and to Louisiana’s Emergency Hazardous Materials Hotline at 1.877.925.6595.
GOHSEP specifically warned residents in coastal areas that oil material from the 2010 BP spill could wash up in the form of tar balls or tar mats and that people should not touch them.
BP is not so worried, though, and wants to wait and see if any oil material washed up by Isaac really comes from the two-year-old spill.
Company spokesman Ray Melick said he didn’t think Isaac would uncover any significant amount oil from BP’s Macondo well, which blew out in April 2010, killing 11 men on a drilling rig and setting off the worst accidental oil spill in history.
“Consistent with the past two hurricane seasons, we do not expect any significant impact of residual (Macondo) oil following Hurricane Isaac,” Melick said.
Contrary to that statement, however, scientists reported last November that residual Macondo oil did indeed wash ashore during Tropical Storm Lee.
This is all part of an ongoing debate between BP and some scientists over how much of the degraded oil remains buried under the sea floor. BP used an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants at the site of the spill, 50 miles off the coast of Venice and a mile below the water’s surface.
The dispersants act like a detergent, breaking the oil into its component parts so microorganisms can eat it. That helped get most of the oil out of the environment in 2010, but teams of scientists also studied what happened to bits of the oil that might have remained in the water column.
Some said remnants of the oil stayed in the water column and could have been buried in the seafloor sediment near the shoreline. But the head of BP’s cleanup operation, Mike Utsler, disputed that assertion last spring, saying the company did not believe any remnants of the oil persisted in the water column two years after the spill.
That said, BP acknowledges that it is still cleaning tar mats that have been caught in the delicate marshes in places like Bay Jimmy in Barataria Bay. That’s one of the hardest hit areas from Isaac, and LSU scientist Ed Overton is convinced that the storm has thrust some Macondo oil inland.
But he doubts the environmental damage from any stirred-up oil will compare at all to the destructive force of the storm.
“My guess is that many of the sites we have been studying will be washed away; there may not be any more Bay Jimmy,” Overton said. “I'm sure some tar balls will be washed up but I'm sure the impacts will be small compared to the other damage from the storm.”
Not entirely dismissing the possibility that oil from Macondo could be stirred up, Melick did say that BP has “repeatedly demonstrated our ability to respond quickly following severe weather,” and promised that “we will do the same as necessary after Hurricane Isaac.” But the BP spokesman also suggested that a storm like Isaac could cause oil to come ashore from other sources, such as damaged pipelines, refineries and fuel terminals. He noted that the federal government estimated that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused more than 500 separate oil spills from more than 140 sources.
Overton, a scientist at LSU who specializes in “fingerprinting” oil and oil debris after spills, said he’s anxious to get out and check the coastlines as soon as the storm clears.