BP oil spill gains dubious record

NEW ORLEANS — The massive BP oil spill that has been plaguing the Gulf coast has became the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday based on the highest of the federal government’s estimates, an ominous record that underscores the oil giant’s dire need to halt the gusher.

The oil that’s spewed for two and a half months from a blown-out well a mile under the sea hit the 140.6 million gallon mark, eclipsing the record-setting, 140-million-gallon Ixtoc I spill off Mexico’s coast from 1979 to 1980. Even by the lower end of the government’s estimates, at least 71.7 million gallons are in the Gulf.

The growing total is crucial to track, in part because London-based BP PLC is likely to be fined per gallon spilled, said Larry McKinney, director of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi’s Gulf of Mexico research institute.

“It’s an important number to know because it has an impact on restoration and recovery,” McKinney said.

The oil calculation is based on the higher end of the government’s range of barrels leaked per day, minus the amount BP says it has collected from the blown-out well using two containment systems. BP collected a smaller amount of oil than usual on Wednesday, about 969,000 gallons.

Measuring the spill helps scientists figure out where the missing oil is, hidden below the water surface with some even stuck to the seafloor. Oil not at the surface damages different parts of the ecosystem.

“It’s a mind-boggling number any way you cut it,” said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental studies professor who consults for the federal government on oil spills. “It’ll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it’s finished.”

And passing Ixtoc just before the July Fourth weekend, a time of normally booming tourism, is bitter timing, he said.

The BP spill, which began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion killed 11 workers April 20, is also the largest spill ever recorded offshore during peacetime.

But it’s not the biggest in history.

That happened when Iraqi forces opened valves at a terminal and dumped about 460 million gallons of oil in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war.

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