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Experts Say Oil Cleanup Will Probably Take Years

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: Rick Steiner roars through Barataria Pass off the southern Louisiana coast. Rust-red slicks of crude oil swirl past the bow of the inflatable skiff. For two decades, Steiner was one of the lead biologists studying the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. He's an environmental activist now, working with Greenpeace. He suddenly realizes that we're surrounded by a pod of bottlenose dolphins.

RICK STEINER: And these dolphins are all being exposed in the water. They get it in their eyes. They ingest it. Sometimes they actually even inhale it. So they're all being dosed.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER ENGINE)

MANN: After the Alaska spill in 1989, Steiner says this kind of full-court press went on for years.

STEINER: In Prince William Sound, they had to do three summers worth of cleanup, and then they realized that there was no net environmental benefit to continuing.

MANN: The debate over how long this cleanup should go on is likely to get complicated. BP has already spent a billion dollars responding to this crisis. In an interview with BBC television last Sunday, CEO Tony Hayward promised to do whatever it takes to make the Gulf Coast clean again.

TONY HAYWARD: That's an absolute commitment, and we will be there long after the media is gone making good on our promises.

MANN: Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen seemed to agree, suggesting that large-scale cleanup operations might end as early as this fall. Then, in a briefing at the White House on Monday, he offered a clarification.

THAD ALLEN: Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months. After that, it'll be taken care of. I agree with you. Long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years.

MANN: Some leaders along the Gulf Coast say BP and the Obama administration have tried to downplay the magnitude of the cleanup.

STEVE SCALISE: They have underestimated this from day one.

MANN: That's Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise.

SCALISE: And they don't realize how long-lasting this cleanup could be. I think it could be a long time. I hope they cap the well tomorrow. But if they do, you've still got six weeks of oil in Gulf that are going to continue moving onshore.

MANN: Dr. Moby Solangi heads the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi. He says scientists aren't sure yet how to define success.

MOBY SOLANGI: They might be able to take care of the superficial - you know, the tar and all that that's obvious. But what they're looking for is a lot of the issues in the food chain and the eco system. It's going to take quite a bit of time, quite a bit of study before we can give it a green light.

MANN: Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen's Association(ph), says he's not optimistic, especially if hurricanes push the oil further into coastal wetlands.

BYRON ENCALADE: It could be years and years, especially in the oyster situation, where you would never be able to fish oysters with chemicals coming off the land, on high tides that would come in. You'd have that oil constantly going over those oyster beds.

MANN: For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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