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US Government Officials Grilled on Seafood Safety

Some U.S. government officials were on the hot seat Thursday about the safety of seafood after the gulf oil spill.  The disaster has severely affected the fishing and tourism industries of the Gulf Coast. Oil first began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after an April 20 explosion on a rig leased by BP, which ruptured the oil well and killed 11 workers.  Now that the oil well has been sealed, questions are being asked about eating Gulf seafood.

Most U.S. representatives have exited Washington for summer recess.  That's why the chairman of the subcommittee, Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts was the only legislator present.  But the Democrat from Massachusetts grilled the government scientists who came to testify.

"Of the 4.1 million barrels of oil that actually went into the ocean, what percent was removed by BP?," he asked. He asked the question of Bill Lehr, the senior scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Lehr's staffers hastily produced a calculator and offered the figure to the congressman.

LEHR: "So, I need to multiply by 1.2 those percentages. So, roughly the burn would be six per cent, and the skimmed would be four per cent.
MARKEY: "So between the skimming and the burning, ten percent of the 4.1 million barrels would have been removed from the ocean, leaving 90 percent unaccounted for."  

Lehr said said the cleanup was comparable to a government standard of success from 1989.  That was the number used in the Exxon Valdez Oil spill, up to this point the largest ever in U.S. waters.  And, Congressman Markey reacted. "Even using a 21 year old grading system, that BP has done a very poor job in cleaning up the Gulf," he said.

Representative Markey also criticized fish studies done by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that tests food safety. The FDA's Vicki Seyfert-Margolis had said nearly every ph test for chemicals came out negative, some 1,000 times below the safe level.

MARKEY: Have you been looking at fish inside the oiled areas?
SEYFERT-MARGOLIS: No.
MARKEY: No. I think that's important for people and I would recommend to you that you do some testing there."

The concern is that contaminated fish from the oil spill would migrate to areas reopened for fishing.  The representative also said the numbers would give scientists a baseline for the most polluted waters.

Dean Blanchard's seafood business used to supply a good amount of shrimp in the U.S.  He says BP's intent was not to clear the oil. "It was cheaper to sink it: out of sight, out of mind, and out of here.  That was BPs approach. But as far as going back to our seafood tested --our seafood is probably being tested more than any other product in the world," he said.

A group of independent scientists said Thursday they have discovered a 35-kilometer long underwater plume of oil -- about 900 meters below the surface.  That seemed to be supported by Acy Cooper, the Vice President of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association.  "It's not gone.  It's on the bottom. We can take you and show you. I took the coast guard out. I brought BP and showed them. You stir the bottom up and it comes up," he said.

"The reason that we are having this hearing is so BP knows, we aren't going away.  We know that BP does not stand for "be prepared," Representative Markey said.

No one from BP attended the hearing.

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