NEW ORLEANS – Federal officials predicted Friday that most Gulf Coast beaches have seen their last major oiling from the BP spill, and South Florida and the East Coast should be spared any impact because the crude never reached the powerful loop current.
A new analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed most surface oil in the Gulf had degraded to a thin sheen. What remained on the surface and below was hundreds of miles from the loop current, which scientists feared could have carried the oil through the Florida Keys, up the East Coast and possibly toward Europe.
NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said a strong eddy is preventing oil from reaching the loop current.
"So there's no mechanism for oil to get from where it is now at the surface to the Keys, Miami-Dade, to any place along the East Coast," Lubchenco said.
NOAA said reports in May that some oil had reached the current were wrong.
Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle will likely be spared any additional major beach oiling, although tar balls could wash ashore, NOAA said. Louisiana's coast was the most likely place where oil could still make landfall.
Government flights have found only scattered patches of light sheen, probably because of effective clean up efforts and natural degradation, Lubchenco said.
"What they are reporting now is that there is very, very little recoverable oil on the surface," Lubchenco said. "That significantly reduces the threat of new shoreline oiling throughout the Gulf."
Oil in the underwater column is also very limited, she said, largely remaining in "microscopic droplets" mostly around the well site off the Louisiana coast.
Lubchenco cautioned that scientists will continue studying the potential effects of the subsurface crude.
"Diluted and out of sight does not mean benign," she said. "But in those concentrations there will be minimal impact to the big things that are out in the ocean, big fish, big marine mammals, birds."
She said scientists still don't know the oil's environmental effect underwater.