It's official: Even with the corrective measures British Petroleum is undertaking to try to contain the oil leak flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, the massive spill has been flowing at a rate two to four times greater than original estimates.
In a teleconference with journalists this morning, United States Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt announced that a team of government and university scientists had developed "independent and scientifically grounded estimates" of the spill that contradicted what both BP and the feds had been claiming for weeks.
The most likely flow rate, she explained, was around 12,000-19,000 barrels of oil per day, not the 5,000-barrel-a-day total given earlier.
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McNutt, who is Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar's chief science adviser -- and, like Salazar, a 1970s Colorado College graduate -- was peppered with tough questions by reporters about the changing figure. She stated that it was only after a variety of calculations had been made, based on "plume modeling" with underwater video and observations of oil on the surface using infrared imagery from NASA, that a probable flow rate could be determined. Some data only became available after BP inserted a "straw" into the ruptured drilling site that siphoned off some of the flow, she added.
Asked if the BP spill had now eclipsed the Exxon Valdez slick, McNutt simply described the ongoing crisis as a "significant environmental disaster." Estimates of the Valdez spill are generally pegged at around 250,000 barrels of oil; if the government's latest figures are correct, BP's boo-boo has released at least 400,000 barrels of oil to date and counting.
In other sludge-related news, the Associated Press is reporting that Elizabeth Birnbaum, Salazar's choice to head his reform effort at the Minerals Management Service last year, has just been fired. Look for more heads to roll as Salazar attempts to split MMS, which oversees offshore drilling safety and revenue collection, into three separate agencies.