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BP Oil Well Finally Capped, But Environmental Damage Continues

By September 20, 2010

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The BP Macondo oil well has finally been laid to rest--nearly five months to the day after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and caught fire on April 20 [2010], killing 11 workers, rupturing the well, and starting one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history.

The federal government declared the well officially dead on Sunday [Sept. 19, 2010], after BP finished drilling a relief well 18,000 feet beneath the ocean surface and pumped cement into the damaged well to create a final seal that will prevent the escape of any more oil and gas.

Adm. Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard officer who is leading the federal spill response, said in a statement that the well "poses no continuing threat to the Gulf of Mexico." That may be true of the damaged well, but it's certainly not true of the oil spill it caused.

Scientists recently discovered a new underwater plume of oil and found a thick layer of oily sediment on the sea floor, stretching for dozens of miles in all directions from the site of the damaged well. But the oil is not staying underwater. It's starting to resurface and wash ashore on the beaches and in the coastal marshes of states that border the Gulf, from Louisiana to Florida, a situation that scientists say could continue for years. And in Florida, scientists have discovered a mix of oil and chemical dispersants, toxic to marine life, floating farther east than anyone had previously expected.

Shrimp fishing in the Gulf has come to a standstill. No one is willing to buy the shrimp even if the fishermen could find them. And the claims of many people whose lives and livelihoods were seriously disrupted by the oil spill remain unpaid. On top of everything else, many Gulf Coast residents who worked to clean up the spill are now reporting a variety of illnesses that appear to be linked to the oil spill and the chemicals used in the cleanup.

About the only good news to come out of the Gulf recently, except for the final capping of the well, is a report from government scientists that natural microbes are consuming the oil without depleting so much oxygen in the water that they create additional dead zones where fish and other marine life cannot survive. Yet even that news is tainted by reports showing that the annual summertime dead zone in the waters south of the Mississippi Delta was twice as big in 2010 as in 2009, nearly 8,000 square miles according to the most conservative estimates.

It seems pretty clear that the full extent of environmental damage from the BP oil spill of 2010 won't be known for many years, perhaps decades. Scientists still aren't sure how much oil, natural gas and chemical dispersants remain in Gulf waters and surrounding marine environments nor can they predict with any certainty the long-term effects on the species that live, nest or migrate in the area.

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