As the BP oil disaster enters its 77th Day we speak to a scientist leading a team of researchers trying to get access to the well to better study what is happening at the site. Dr. Ira Leifer, who’s on the federally appointed Flow Rate Technical Group, says BP is restricting his access to study the gushing oil well.
AMY GOODMAN: It is day 77 of the BP oil spill and there is still no clear end in sight for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Up to 130,000,000 gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico with tens of thousands of barrels continuing to gush out of the Deepwater Horizon well every day. On Monday, tar balls were found on a beach in Texas, the first evidence that the spill has reached all the Gulf states, spanning five hundred miles of coastline through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Panhandle.
Meanwhile, clean-up efforts are far behind where they should be. In the two and half months since the disaster, BP has skimmed or burned just sixty percent of the amount of oil it promised regulators it could remove in a single day. That’s right, The Washington Post reports that in March, just a few weeks before the disaster, BP filed a report saying it had the capacity to skim and remove more than 490,000 barrels of oil each day in the event of a major spill. The report was not questioned by federal officials. As of Monday, skimming operations have averaged less than nine hundred barrels a day and as the disaster continues to worsen, new restrictions are being placed on the media.
The Coast Guard has announced new rules keeping the public, including photographers and reporters covering the spill, from coming within 65 feet of any response vessels or booms on the water or on beaches. Violators could face a fine of up to $40,000 and felony charges. In order to get within the 65 foot limit, media must get direct permission from the Coast Guard Captain of the Port of New Orleans. Well, we’re joined now by a scientist leading a team of researchers trying to get access to the well to better study what is happening at the site.
Congressman Ed Markey wrote a letter to BP last month requesting that the corporation provide safe access to the well site and full financial support, but there’s been no response from BP. Dr. Ira Leifer is the scientist leading the proposed research mission known as "Deep Spill 2." He’s also on the federally appointed Flow Rate Technical Group. He’s a researcher in the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, joining us now on the phone. Dr. Leifer, Welcome to Democracy Now!. Explain what you are requesting and what you are not getting.
DR. IRA LEIFER: Well, Amy, about 10 years ago, almost to the day, there was an experiment in frigid Arctic Norwegian waters to try to learn where the oil would go and because it was a small release, it was artificial. We didn’t learn from that what we need to know now to try to understand where the oil’s going from the Macondo spill. We don’t know, we’re searching in the dark. Deep Spill 2, this experiment that I proposed and created and brought together a team of scientists to research, is trying to understand hypothesis driven science where the oil goes in the water column so that we can actually go and respond to it. And in part it’s for now, to know what it’s effect on the ecosystem is, but a big part of this is for the future and for the next generation, so that in a future oil spill, we actually are not searching blindly for where the oil goes but we have a good idea and we can actually respond to it appropriately.
AMY GOODMAN: What has BP said?
DR. IRA LEIFER: It’s been silent. We put together this experiment, we have literally centuries of field experience from world-class researchers like Miriam Kastner and Rick Koff and Vern Asper, and we’ve heard nothing from BP, as well as other scientists I know who are doing and trying to do research, find themselves blocked at every turn from actually learning what we need to know so we can address this spill safely.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your sense of how much oil is flowing out of this well?
DR. IRA LEIFER: The flow rate team is going to come up with its numbers within, I think, later this week and they’ll be sort of, mine tend towards the top side. But the real problem is not what the amount of oil is flowing out, but where its going, what parts of the ecosystem it’s attacking. Its like a cancer that is metastasizing the patient. The ecosystem may not be dead yet, but its at great risk and patients sometimes die of pneumonia. In this case, a hurricane could come through and my big worry is that if we don’t know where the oil is going and where it’s going to be, then this interwoven network and fabric that is the life of the Gulf of Mexico could be taken out. For example, eagles that never get oiled, if their fish disappear, they too will die. We really need to understand what’s happening and the science is not being done, because in my view and that of many of my colleges, BP is blocking it.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you have to ask BP for permission? Who is in charge here? You’re working for the government. You’re working with them.
DR. IRA LEIFER: As far as I understand, BP is still in charge of access to the well site, as well, it’s unclear in terms of financing and support for science to understand what happens. BP caused this accident and so there’s a certain strong sense that they should in fact support strong efforts to try to understand it, to minimize the damage. And instead, they seem to be worrying about their long-term profits and not the long-term health of the environment.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re not getting permission to do this study but this, it seems to me, this is an indictment not only of BP, but of the U.S. government that allows this to go on. But also reporters, journalists, photographers who are attempting to document this will now be charged with felonies if they come within 65 feet of any site, even to try to photograph an oiled bird?
DR. IRA LEIFER: I don’t really understand that, it makes no sense to me. Where there’s clear safety issues, of course, there’s some issue. But here in Santa Barbara, we have oil, and people work around it and photograph it, and so on. As a scientist, my concern is that if we do science, everyone wins but if we don’t, we’re actually doing a disservice to humanity. That is just inexcusable, in that, if we don’t do the science and nobody learns from this horrible catastrophe to try to be ready for the future one— to myself that is inexcusable—so I and my scientific colleges, are trying to do everything we can to make sure we can learn as much about that. And I would include that the free and fair flow of information, reporters having access is part of the learning process as a society, so that when there are accidents in the future, we actually can respond intelligently and not with a lot of unknown assumptions and just waving our arms and trying to hope we get things right.
AMY GOODMAN: So BP does not want you to study them, but how high up have you gone in the U.S. government—since you work with the U.S. government—to demand access?
DR. IRA LEIFER: What I have done is, I have put together this experiment and I have shared it with members of the Technical Flow Rate Team and other people within the government, hoping to get the go-ahead on being able to do this experiment. As a scientist, I can only make proposals for what to do and try to share what our efforts are with the public through venues like "Democracy Now!" Read on...