Federal officials should have started burning oil off the surface of the Gulf last week, almost as soon as the spill happened, said the former oil spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ron Gouget, who also managed Louisiana's oil response team for a time, said federal officials missed a narrow window of opportunity to gain control of the spill by burning last week, before the spill spread hundreds of miles across the Gulf, and before winds began blowing toward shore.
He also said the heavy use of dispersants, which cause oil to sink, has likely knocked so much oil into the water column that portions of the Gulf may be on the threshold of becoming toxic to marine life. Add in the oil spreading into the water as it rises from the seafloor, and Gouget said he expected officials would have to think about limiting the use of the dispersants.
"There was a threshold of about 35 part per million for oil in the water. Above that, white shrimp larvae died in the laboratory. I don't know where the levels are now in the Gulf, but that is something they will have to keep an eye on," Gouget said.
Gouget, now an environmental consultant with Windward Associates in Seattle, was part of the group that created the 1994 plan designed to allow federal responders to begin burning oil as soon as a major spill occurred, without an approval process.
"They had pre-approval. The whole reason the plan was created was so we could pull the trigger right away instead of waiting ten days to get permission," Gouget said. "If you read the pre-approval plan, it speaks about Grand Isle, where the spill is. When the wind is blowing offshore out of the north, you have preapproval to burn in that region. If the wind is coming onshore, like it is now, you can't burn at Grand Isle. They waited to do the test burn until the wind started coming onshore."
Asked why officials waited for a week before conducting even a test burn, Gouget said, "Good question. Maybe complacency was the biggest issue. They probably didn't have the materials on hand to conduct the burn, which is unconscionable."
He said the NOAA officials involved at the Unified Command Center in Louisiana know how to respond to spills, and know burning should have started as soon as possible after the initial release was detected. Gouget said they may have been overruled.(Continues here)