GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - The mind-boggling news that the oil leak
at the bottom of the sea may be twice as big as previously thought
could have major repercussions for both the environment and BP's
financial health, killing more marine life and dramatically
increasing the amount the company must pay in fines and damages.
Scientists now say the blown-out well could have been spewing as
much as 2 million gallons of crude before a cut-and-cap maneuver
started capturing some of the flow, meaning more than 100 million
gallons may have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the start of
the disaster in April. That is more than nine times the size of the
1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, previously the worst oil spill in U.S.
The larger estimates, while still preliminary and considered a
worst-case scenario, could contribute to breathtaking liabilities
against BP. Penalties can be levied against the company under a
variety of environmental protection laws, including fines of up to
$1,100 under the Clean Water Act for each barrel of oil spilled.
Based on the maximum amount of oil possibly spilled to date,
that would translate to a potential civil fine for simple discharge
alone of $2.8 billion. If BP were found to have committed gross
negligence or willful misconduct, the civil fine could be up to
$4,300 per barrel, or up to $11.1 billion.
"It's going to blow the record books up," said Eric Schaeffer,
who led the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement office
from 1997 to 2002.
A larger spill also could lead to increased environmental
hazards, with shrimp, crabs and fish such as marlin and swordfish
especially hard hit.
"Certainly if there are greater volumes of oil than were
originally estimated, that doesn't bode well," said Jim Franks, a
fisheries biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf
Coast Research Laboratory. "Do we expect twice the impact? I don't
know how to judge that, but that much more oil could not be good at
all for fish and wildlife resources. I would anticipate
Days after the spill began, government officials told the public
that the ruptured well a mile below the Gulf was leaking 42,000
gallons a day. Then, officials said it was actually five times
bigger. That estimate didn't last long either. The new estimates
are based on spillcam video as well as such things as satellite,
sonar and pressure readings.
The lead scientist in the effort said the most credible range at
the moment is between 840,000 gallons and 1.68 million gallons a
Another part of the equation is how much more oil started to
leak last week after the riser pipe was cut, a step that BP and
government officials said could increase the flow by 20 percent.
The pipe cut was necessary to install a cap over the well; the cap
has captured an estimated 4 million gallons so far.
If the higher-end estimates prove accurate, the leak amounts to
an Exxon Valdez every five days or so. At that rate, in just over
three weeks from now it will eclipse the worst oil spill in
peacetime history, the 1979 Ixtoc disaster in Mexico, which took 10
months to belch out 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.
And there's more bad news. The oil gushing from the Gulf
contains large amounts of natural gas. Samantha Joye, a professor
of marine sciences at the University of Georgia, said that can
contribute significantly to oxygen levels plummeting in the water
as microbes eat the methane clouds.
In addition to the potential for billions in fines, BP is
responsible for paying all cleanup costs and up to $75 million for
economic damages. But it could face far heavier expenses if gross
negligence is found or if it is determined that there was a
violation of a federal safety, construction or operating
regulation, Schaeffer said.
"You bet the trial lawyers are sharpening their swords around
that language," he said.
And that's not including the tens of billions of dollars in
shareholder wealth that has already evaporated with the plunge of
BP's stock since the disaster.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg became a lonely defender
of BP, declaring the world should not rush to point fingers at the
British oil giant. The billionaire tycoon often sides with CEOs and
businesses entangled in public relations disasters.
"The guy that runs BP didn't exactly go down there and blow up
the well," Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show. "And what's
more, if we want them to fix it and they're the only ones with the
expertise, I think I might wait to assign blame."
That the BP oil spill may be twice as bad as earlier estimates
was hard news to hear but no surprise to Christain Delos Reyes, a
39-year-old oyster dredger.
"Crabs start real small. You know they're all going to die.
It'll kill all the oysters. In my opinion, I don't think it'll ever
be all right," Reyes said. "I think it's destroyed."
Wanda Kirby, 65, owns the Sandpiper Shores Motel in Grand Isle,
La., a couple of hundred feet from where a long strand of bright
orange boom slices across the beach to block the oil.
"Whether it's five gallons or five million, I don't care. We
don't really need to be wasting time measuring it," she said. "We
just need to stop it."
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