Reporter Jeffrey Kofman's ABC News report from Buras, La., on July 26 asked "Where did all the crude go?" Agence France-Presse (AFP) followed on July 27, asking "Where is all the oil?" An Associated Press headline that day asked "Gulf Flow Has Stopped, But Where Is the Oil?" By July 29, Time's Michael Grunwald went even further, penning a story headlined "The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?," in which he wrote, "But so far — while it's important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage."
The media stampede ignored a few salient facts. Coastal parishes last week all reported oil on shore or close to shore, or both. On July 28, the National Resources Defense Council issued a report showing 2,000 beach closings, advisories and notices had been issued in the Gulf region so far this year — compared with 237 in all of 2009. Oil is also blowing through boom, landing along islands off the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts. More ominously, oil is billowing under the water's surface in large patches — some stretching for miles and sinking rapidly, thanks to BP-applied dispersants. The controversial dispersants break oil apart and send it to the ocean's floor or into plumes and currents, which can carry the oil thousands of miles from its source.
AFP reported "the real difficulty now is finding any oil to clean up." National Incident Commander Thad Allen adds, "What we're trying to figure out is where is all the oil at and what can we do about it."
If the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies can't find it, perhaps they don't know where to look.
Local blogger Jason Berry (aka Ashe Dambala, americanzombie.blogspot.com) flew over oil-impacted areas on July 23 and 26 and found oil right under his nose on the earlier flight. From New Orleans to Raccoon Island, to the Deepwater Horizon well, to Horn Island and to Ocean Springs, Miss., Berry photographed miles-long patches of dispersed oil and ribbons of crude. Just three days later, he says, the Gulf surface was noticeably clearer.
"They're sinking the oil, and it's sinking very quickly," Berry says. "In just a couple days, there's little to no signs of it. That doesn't mean it's not there."
Submerged oil, he says, is moving east of the Mississippi River "like the Blob" and breaks up as it approaches the coastline, spraying it with globules and tar balls. Meanwhile, Berry says, he observed children and families playing in the shallow waters along the beach. "I want to tell those mothers, 'Do you have any idea what's sitting 100 yards that way?'" Berry says.
Berry's initial flyover — in which he took dozens of photographs of oil-fouled waters — occurred just two days before ABC News' Kofman took a similar flight to the submerged rig and reported "There was no oil to be seen." In response to a query, Kofman told Gambit the photographs of clean waters accompanying his story on the ABC News website were taken July 9, two weeks earlier.
Louisiana State University environmental studies professor Ed Overton told Kofman the disappearing oil is "Mother Nature doing her job," noting that microbes and small marine organisms digest the broken-down oil. Is that a good thing? That impact may confirm some marine scientists' greatest fears — that once oil is embedded in the water column, affecting marine life in its most basic forms, it sets off a chain reaction in the food web. — Alex Woodward