Oil Spill Update: Stalled Progress, Potent Pollutants, Worried Workers and more

Oil on a Gulf Coast beach. (Photo by Kim Hubbard/Audubon magazine)
A week ago, BP finally secured a cap that stopped the oil from free-flowing into the ocean. Despite this positive step, there are still so many unanswered questions (last week, senior editor Alisa Opar wrote about what happens if the cap actually holds) and the well isn’t yet permanently shut. Here’s the latest news about the spill:
Tropical Storm Halts Well Work
This morning, the National Hurricane Center designated weather stirring in the Atlantic a tropical depression and forecasted that if it maintains its current pattern, it could reach the Gulf of Mexico in three or four days.
Yesterday afternoon, National Incident commander Thad Allen stated in a press briefing that an evacuation due to bad weather could stall progress by up to two weeks. “If we are forced to move off the site because of weather, the entire operation—including the last piece of the relief well, which is laying that last casing in—could be delayed 10 to 14 days,” he said. (Allen described the casing as “a hollow steel pipe that reinforces a well bore” and the last step needed before mud can be pumped into the well to plug it forever.)
The Associated Press reported today that progress is now stopped; if the weather gets bad enough, the well may have to be reopened, spilling oil into the water again until engineers can get back in. As of this afternoon, no evacuation decision had been made.
NOAA Releases Air Pollutant Numbers
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today released data about the air quality of several spots near the oil spill: very close by, downwind, and along the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. NOAA scientists also looked at what they termed “background” air—air far from the spill—as a control.
Testing revealed that common air pollutants such as ozone and carbon monoxide showed up in numbers normal for urban areas. Nine to 43 miles (15 to 70 km) from the spill, certain hydrocarbons appeared in much higher concentrations. The scientists conducted their research in two seven-hour flights that took place in early June.

NOAA's flights over the Gulf in June. (Photo: Courtesy of NOAA)
Workers Worried about Deepwater Horizon before Explosion
Just weeks before Deepwater Horizon exploded, workers on the rig stated in a confidential survey commissioned by Transocean that they were worried about the rig’s safety and reliability, The New York Times reported. However, the workers held their tongues for fear of consequences.
Another report, which assessed the rig’s equipment, gave out more than two dozen “bad” or “poor” ratings. A Transocean spokesman responded to the Times by saying that “most of the 26 components on the rig found to be in poor condition were minor” and “that all elements of the blowout preventer had been inspected within the required time frame by its original manufacturer.”
These reports could change Transocean’s fiscal liability—which the company has lobbied to cap at $27 million, citing the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. All bets are off under that law, however, if it’s found that the vessel owner acted negligently. 
By the Numbers: July 22
Here are some of the latest numbers related to the spill, from the Joint Information Center and the Associated Press
  • - 172,703,776 million gallons of oil have gushed into the ocean
  • - 626 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline are currently oiled, with 363 miles in Louisiana, 108 miles in Mississippi, 70 miles in Alabama, and 85 miles in Florida
  • - 83,927 square miles of Gulf of Mexico waters are still closed to fishing
  • - 1.84 million gallons of dispersant have been used; 577,000 gallons are still available
  • - 3.5 million feet of containment boom and 7.6 million feet of sorbent boom are in use to stop the spill
  • - The oil spill began 93 days ago
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