WASHINGTON — Many scientists say they're skeptical of a widely publicized government report Wednesday that concludes that much of the oil that gushed from BP's leaking well is gone and poses little threat to the Gulf of Mexico.
Early Wednesday, BP announced that a crush of mud had finally plugged the blown-out well.
The government stopped just short of pronouncing the well dead, cautioning that cement and mud must still be pumped in from the bottom to seal it off for good.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the "vast majority" of the 4.9 million barrels released into the Gulf has either evaporated "or been burned, skimmed, and recovered from the wellhead, or dispersed."
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Ronald Kendall, the director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, said he was skeptical "if that's accurate or not." He was one of the scientists who testified Wednesday at a congressional hearing about the need for more research into the composition and use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil in the Gulf.
"It's an estimate and I'd like to say that even if it's true, there are still 50 to 60 million gallons that are still out there," he said. "It's too early to draw the conclusion that the coast is clear, but there are species there that will tell us."
The White House used the report to boost public confidence that the accident at BP's drilling site, which killed 11 workers, fouled the Gulf, killed wildlife and disrupted the regional economies from Texas to Florida, is now behind the nation.
Many scientists, however, questioned both the rosy White House assessment and the administration's motives, timing and record of estimating how much oil was flowing from the well.
The report says that less than half of the oil remains in the environment. About 26 percent of it remains as surface sheen or tarballs, or other forms of oil. About 16 percent was dispersed naturally, and another 8 percent was dispersed by the chemicals BP pumped onto the surface of the Gulf and deep underwater at the source of the leak.
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, said at a White House news conference that "much of the dispersed oil is in the process of relatively rapid degradation."
President Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, the president's energy and climate change adviser, Carol Browner, and Thad Allen, who as the national incident commander directed the BP cleanup, joined Lubchenco at the White House briefing.
The scientists and other experts who challenged the government's conclusions warned that painting too rosy a picture could hamper the environmental monitoring and cleanup work that remains to be done in the Gulf.
Marine conservationist Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska scientist, said: "Let's look at this another way: that there's some 50 percent of the oil left. It's still there in the environment."
Numbers are suspect
The government report also fails to account for the effect of vast, underwater plumes of microscopic droplets of oil that remain unmeasured, scientists said, and it downplays the potential long-term effects of the release of as much as 4.1 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Some 800,000 barrels were captured at the wellhead.
The remaining 50 percent in the water is the equivalent of almost eight Exxon Valdez oil spills, until now the country's benchmark environmental disaster.
"Now what we're hearing is they don't think the damage will be as bad as they initially thought," Steiner said. "We have to remember that the same thing was said after the Exxon Valdez. But much of the damage didn't become apparent until the second or third year."
In the face of the criticism, administration officials bristled at questions about their findings.
Lubchenco said the data was "the best direct measurements or estimates that we have at the moment" and that if new information surfaces, the government would adjust its findings "as is always the case in science." Browner said, "There could be some change" but said the likelihood of any large-scale revision was "very, very small."
Gibbs rejected the notion that the timing and framing of the report were meant to gloss over questions or to reassure Americans. "This isn't a reassurance document," he protested. "It's a compendium of where the oil is." Alluding to President George W. Bush's premature declaration of victory in Iraq, Gibbs said "there's no 'Mission Accomplished' banner" and that "we're not leaving the area, and more importantly we're not leaving behind any commitment to clean up the Gulf Coast."