May 3, 2010— -- Scientists and environmentalists scoffed at Rush Limbaugh's suggestion that the ocean would clean up itself following a devastating accident in the Gulf of Mexico that has resulted in a miles-wide oil slick slowly making its way to fisheries and beaches along the coast.
Following the initial explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, engineers discovered that the well beneath the rig was leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels an hour, leading to predictions of billions of dollars in damage to coastal fishing regions and a years-long cleanup.
Limbaugh has downplayed the need for a massive cleanup, saying that oil in the ocean was a natural phenomenon and as a result the ocean would take care of cleaning itself.
"You do survive these things. I'm not advocating don't care about it hitting the shore or coast and whatever you can do to keep it out of there is fine and dandy, but the ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and was left out there," Limbaugh said. "It's natural. It's as natural as the ocean water is."
But according to scientists, while some oil is normal seepage can be handled by natural systems, it's doubtful that the ocean could simply assimilate so much oil. Instead, the oil if left unchecked would break down into a sticky "mousse" coating seabirds, killing fish and spoiling delicate marshes and beaches.
"There is a large amount of natural seepage that occurs in the gulf and the ocean does assimilate it, most small spills that occur that are assimilated," said Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean at the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University.
"But this spill is of very large dimensions. And the capacity of any natural system has its limits. The oil is in a form that makes it very destructive when it gets to shore… You're left with residue that is goopy and floats. It's a story of mousse. If it hits a marsh, or shore, or the beach, it gloms on to everything. We've all seem images of birds caught up and it's devastating to them," he said.
By Monday evening it appeared the slick was shrinking, breaking up into divergent pieces or going under water, according to scientists reviewing satellite images.
Satellite photos suggested the slick had shrunk from 2,000 square miles from 3,400 square miles last Thursday, Hans Graber of the University of Miami Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing told the Associated Press.
Graber said the smaller slick was the result of oil going underwater, the result of rough seas and wind and that large chunks had broken away from the larger slick. It still remains unclear when the oil is expected to make landfall.
Limbaugh made his comments in a broadcast last Thursday in which he also blamed the oil rig's explosion on an attack by "hardcore environmentalist wackos."
Limbaugh suggested environmentalists attacked the Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by energy giant BP, as way to "head off more oil drilling" and prevent Congress from passing an energy bill that would allow for more off-shore drilling.
Environmentalists Take on Rush Limbaugh
"But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they're sending SWAT teams down there [to the Gulf of Mexico,] folks, since they're sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here," Limbaugh said on his show on April 29.
Environmentalists reacted to Limbaugh's comment, calling it "ridiculous."
"It's an absolutely ridiculous assertion," said Kristina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. "This is a tragedy… It is no secret who is to blame. BP is responsible for this disaster and they should be held accountable for the cleanup."
Wesley Warren, director of the National Resources Defense Council, echoed that sentiment saying: "No one is seriously suggesting that this wasn't anything other than a technological failure because of decisions made by the company."
"What is really crazy is that we now have to set the ocean on fire to clean up a big oil spill when we could have pursued different path," Warren said.
In early April, President Obama broke with some in his party to endorse off-shore drilling to spur economic growth. Following the spill, however, the president halted the expansion of new wells.