Experts: Gulf Oil Shouldn’t Threaten Md.

By jennifer.hlad

WASHINGTON – Seafood coming from the Gulf of Mexico region is “absolutely safe” and Maryland is “very, very unlikely” to see any oil from the British Petroleum spill, scientists told Maryland’s congressional delegation Thursday.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chaired the briefing, told representatives from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that she has received e-mails from Marylanders asking if they should cancel plans to visit area beaches or avoid eating seafood.

“With 20 percent of our seafood coming from the Gulf, one of our questions was: Is the seafood safe, and how will we know it will continue to be safe (from oil and chemical dispersants)?” Mikulski said. “Marylanders are wondering: Is this going to come up to our beaches? And is it going to come up the bay,” wreaking havoc on seafood and the environment?

Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner for FDA, outlined how the agency is working to close contaminated areas to fishing and test fish and water before reopening them.

Eric Schwaab, assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA, told the delegation that multiple agencies are working together to monitor the seafood coming out of the Gulf region and ensure it is safe.

Steve Murawski, NOAA director of scientific programs for the oil spill, said the currents are working in such a way that water from the Yucatan Peninsula area is going straight over to Florida, and the water near the spill is staying in that region. Usually, that water would be part of a loop current and get pulled southeast, where it could join the Gulf Stream and be swept up the East Coast.

But even if the water from the area near the April 22 oil spill is pulled into the loop current, it is “very, very unlikely that any liquid oil is going to make it this far north,” Murawski said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he knows the likelihood of oil from the spill making it to Maryland is remote, but he is concerned about the potential impact on wildlife. For example, he said, what may happen to Orioles when they fly south?

He didn’t get an answer.

Cardin also said he wants to make sure there is sufficient baseline environmental data now, so any future impact on this region could be assessed.

Mikulski and Cardin repeatedly asked about the potential effect of chemical dispersants.

“It deeply troubles me that these additional risks are now there,” Cardin said. “We don’t have a body of evidence on these dispersants” at this level.

He raised his voice and challenged Sharfstein, who argued that the chemicals in the dispersants are relatively common and are unlikely to have any toxic effects.

“It’s unprecedented,” Cardin said of the amounts used.

Sharfstein agreed that the situation is
unprecedented, but stressed that “what we do know (about the chemicals) is reassuring.”

Mikulski told the expert panel she and her fellow lawmakers “don’t doubt science,” but also recall the damage wrought by Hurricane Isabel, which swept up the East Coast in September 2003.

“We went to bed and we thought we were safe, and then we woke up and we found out we weren’t,” she said. “What was once infrequent and unlikely is now coming with regularity and tremendous consequence.”

After the briefing, Mikulski said she wants to learn more about the dispersants. She chairs an appropriations subcommittee that funds NOAA, and the group will host a July 15 hearing on them.

–by Jennifer Hlad

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Bay on the Brink is a multimedia reporting project examining the fate of the Chesapeake Bay. It is produced by fellows at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism as part of News21, a consortium of journalism schools. This is the fellows' blog. The full project site is here: http://chesapeake.news21.com
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