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    Is the Water Really Safe?

Oil spill: BP reverses, admits there's oil in local waters

KIMBERLY BLAIR • KBLAIR@PNJ.COM • AUGUST 29, 2010

Despite persistent denials from BP last week, thousands of pounds of weathered oil is being pulled from under the surface of Pensacola Bay every day.

During more than a dozen interviews last week, BP officials and spokespeople for a number of government agencies working on the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill response denied knowledge of oil in the bay.

Even as they spoke, however, Escambia County officials and local fishermen were reporting finding weathered oil, as they've been doing for weeks. BP's own crews were hand-scooping it up, and a submerged-oil team from BP's Deepwater Horizon Response Incident Command Post in Mobile was investigating.

"BP says it's all gone, but it's not. I've known it was out there for a month," said a commercial fisherman who asked not to be identified because he is working for BP in the cleanup and feared losing his job.

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"We were recovering it in a boat ... scooping it up out of sand and dumping it into bags. They're just trying to keep it quiet. Out of sight, out of mind."

On Friday, Coast Guard Lt. Stephen West with the Incident Command Post finally confirmed an area of oil a quarter of a mile long and up to 50 to 60 feet off Barrancas Beach at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

He also confirmed that buckets of sunken oil were being pulled up in another area of Pensacola Bay, near Fort Pickens at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

On Saturday, Scott Piggott, who heads the Escambia and Santa Rosa cleanup operation for BP, said cleanup workers began noticing the submerged oil at Barrancas Beach in July.

"The last month, we've spent considerable effort to get people to concentrate on that," he said. "Then we notice the same phenomenon at the Fort Pickens site, and cleanup has been going on there for two weeks."

The statements from West and Piggott follow the federal government's claim earlier this month that 70 percent of the oil is gone, with much of it dissolved like sugar in tea, according to one White House official said earlier this month.

They also came after Escambia County supplied the News Journal with two of BP's daily reports to the county about the cleanup.

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BP oil spill: US scientist retracts assurances over success of cleanup

NOAA's Bill Lehr says three-quarters of the oil that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon rig is still in the Gulf environment while scientists identify 22-mile plume in ocean depth.

House Holds Hearing On BP Oil Spill And Safety Of Seafood
Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the NOAA, appeared before Congress to repudiate an earlier report he wrote, which suggested the majority of the oil had been capture

White House claims that the worst of the BP oil spill was over were undermined yesterday when a senior government scientist said three-quarters of the oil was still in the Gulf environment and a research study detected a 22-mile plume of oil in the ocean depths.

Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) departed from an official report from two weeks ago which suggested the majority of the oil had been captured or broken down.

"I would say most of that is still in the environment," Lehr, the lead author of the report, told the house energy and commerce committee.

The growing evidence that the White House painted an overly optimistic picture when officials claimed two weeks ago the remaining oil in the Gulf was rapidly breaking down fuelled a sense of outrage in the scientific community that government agencies are hiding data and spinning the science of the oil spill. No new oil has entered the Gulf since 15 July, but officials said yesterday the well is unlikely to be sealed for good until mid-September.

Under questioning from the committee chair, Ed Markey, Lehr revised down the amount of oil that went into the Gulf to 4.1m barrels, from an earlier estimate of 4.9m, noting that 800,000 barrels were siphoned off directly from the well.

By some estimates, as much as 90% of the oil was unaccounted for. Lehr said 6% was burned and 4% was skimmed but he could not be confident of numbers for the amount collected from beaches.

The NOAA has been under fire from independent scientists and Congress for its conclusions and for failing to explain how it arrived at its calculations. The agency has failed to respond to repeated requests from Congress to reveal its raw data and methodology.

Markey told Lehr the agency report had given the public a false sense of confidence. "You shouldn't have released it until you knew it was right," he said.

"People want to believe that everything is OK and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf," Markey said.

Lehr said the agency would release all supporting data in two months.

But the impression of stonewalling has damaged the credibility of the Obama administration in the scientific community.

"That report was not science," said Ian MacDonald, an ocean scientist at Florida State University who has studied the Gulf for 30 years. He accused the White House of making "sweeping and largely unsupported" claims that three-quarters of the oil in the Gulf was gone.

"I believe this report is misleading," he said. "The imprint will be there in the Gulf of Mexico for the rest of my life. It is not gone and it will not go away quickly."

MacDonald went on to warn of a tipping point from which the wildlife and ecosystem in the Gulf could not recover.

Meanwhile, in the Science article, experts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute mapped a 22-mile plume of oil droplets fromBP's well, providing the strongest evidence so far over the fate of the crude.

"These results indicate that efforts to book-keep where the oil went must now include this plume," said Christopher Reddy, one of the Woods Hole team. The report also said the plume was very slow to break down by natural forces.

"Many people speculated that subsurface oil droplets were being easily degraded," said Richard Camilli, the lead author of the paper. "Well, we didn't find that. We found it was still there."

The scientists zig-zagged for hundreds of miles across the ocean to track the plume, taking 57,000 readings of its chemical signature during a 10-day research voyage at the end of June.

The Woods Hole effort reinforces earlier reports from research voyages by scientists from the University of Georgia and Texas A&M University who detected the presence of deepwater plumes of oil.

This week, University of South Florida scientists reported oil in amounts that were toxic to critical plankton on the ocean floor far east of the spill. Those findings have not been reviewed by other scientists.

According to the Woods Hole findings, the deepwater plume is 22 miles long – or about the length of Manhattan – 1.2 miles wide and 650ft high. It noted that the plume was not made up of pure oil but included toxic oil compounds including benzene and xylene.

Yesterday's testimony and the Science article put the White House and government scientific agencies increasingly out of step with independent scientists.

It also raises new questions about the administration's decision to use nearly 2m gallons of a chemical dispersant Corexit to break up the oil.

The NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, herself an ocean scientist, had played down the first reports of oil in the ocean depths. MacDonald and other scientists have accused NOAA of discouraging them from making public their findings about lingering oil in the deepwater.

A NOAA spokeswoman said last night that the Woods Hole voyage was in late June, while the broken BP well was still spewing oil. "It's not necessarily an indication of where we are today" she said.

A NOAA team reported two weeks ago that just over a quarter of oil remained in the Gulf as a light sheen on the surface or degraded tar balls washing ashore.

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For Water Quality Testing Results, 
 Please Scroll Down To Walton County and Select Date.


The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is collecting and analyzing water, sediment, and oil samples from Florida’s coastal waters in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These samples are being collected for a variety of purposes. There is a delay from when the samples are collected to when the results are reported due to the time that it takes to deliver the samples to the lab and then analyze the samples. We are striving for a four day turnaround time. Results will be reported on a daily basis.
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Is the Water Really Safe?

August 19, 2010, 2 p.m.

Source: Media Relations

WHOI Scientists Map and Confirm Origin of Large, Underwater Hydrocarbon Plume in Gulf

Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have detected a plume of hydrocarbons that is at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a residue of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

The 1.2-mile-wide, 650-foot-high plume of trapped hydrocarbons provides at least a partial answer to recent questions asking where all the oil has gone as surface slicks shrink and disappear. “These results indicate that efforts to book keep where the oil went must now include this plume” in the Gulf, said Christopher Reddy, a WHOI marine geochemist and oil spill expert and one of the authors of the study, which appears in the Aug. 19 issue of the journal Science.

The researchers measured distinguishing petroleum hydrocarbons in the plume and, using them as an investigative tool, determined that the source of the plume could not have been natural oil seeps but had to have come from the blown out well. 

Moreover, they reported that deep-sea microbes were degrading the plume relatively slowly, and that it was possible that the plume had and will persist for some time. 

The WHOI team based its findings on some 57,000 discrete chemical analyses measured in real time during a June 19-28 scientific cruise aboard the R/V Endeavor, which is owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by the University of Rhode Island. They accomplished their feat using two highly advanced technologies: the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry and a type of underwater mass spectrometer known as TETHYS (Tethered Yearlong Spectrometer).

“We’ve shown conclusively not only that a plume exists, but also defined its origin and near-field structure,” said Richard Camilli of WHOI’s Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department, chief scientist of the cruise and lead author of the paper. “Until now, these have been treated as a theoretical matter in the literature.

“In June, we observed the plume migrating slowly [at about 0.17 miles per hour] southwest of the source of the blowout,” said Camilli. The researchers began tracking it about three miles from the well head and out to about 22 miles (35 kilometers) until the approach of Hurricane Alex forced them away from the study area.

The study—which was enabled by three NSF RAPID grants to WHOI scientists with additional funding from the U.S. Coast Guard—confirms that a continuous plume exists “at petroleum hydrocarbon levels that are noteworthy and detectable,” Reddy said. The levels and distributions of the petroleum hydrocarbons show that “the plume is not caused by natural [oil] seeps” in the Gulf of Mexico, Camilli added.

WHOI President and Director Susan K. Avery praised the WHOI scientists for their “prudence and thoroughness, as they conducted an important, elegant study under difficult conditions in a timely manner.

Persistent plume
The plume has shown that the oil already “is persisting for longer periods than we would have expected,” Camilli said. “Many people speculated that subsurface oil droplets were being easily biodegraded.

“Well, we didn’t find that. We found it was still there.”

Whether the plume’s existence poses a significant threat to the Gulf is not yet clear, the researchers say.  “We don’t know how toxic it is,” said Reddy, “and we don’t know how it formed, or why. But knowing the size, shape, depth, and heading of this plume will be vital for answering many of these questions.”

The key to the discovery and mapping of the plume was the use of the mass spectrometer TETHYS integrated into the Sentry AUV. Camilli developed the mass spectrometer in close industrial partnership with Monitor Instruments Co. in Cheswick, Pa., through a grant from the National Ocean Partnership Program. The TETHYS--which is small enough to fit within a shoebox--is capable of identifying minute quantities of petroleum and other chemical compounds in seawater instantly.

Sentry, funded by NSF and developed and operated by WHOI, is capable of exploring the ocean down to 14,764 feet (4,500 meters) depth. Equipped with its advanced analytical systems, it was able to crisscross plume boundaries continuously 19 times to help determine the trapped plume’s size, shape, and composition. This knowledge of the plume structure guided the team in collecting physical samples for further laboratory analyses using a traditional oceanographic tool, a cable-lowered water sampling system that measures conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD). This CTD, however, was instrumented with a TETHYS. In each case, the mass spectrometers were used to positively identify areas containing petroleum hydrocarbons.

“We achieved our results because we had a unique combination of scientific and technological skills,” said Dana Yoerger, a co-principal investigator and WHOI senior scientist.

Until now, scientists had suspected the existence of a plume, but attempts to detect and measure it had been inconclusive, primarily because of inadequate sampling techniques, according to the WHOI scientists. In previous research, Yoerger said, “investigators relied mostly on a conventional technique: vertical profiling. We usedSentry and TETHYS to scan large areas horizontally, which enabled us to target our vertical profiles more effectively. Our methods provide much better information about the size and shape of the plume.”

The researchers detected a class of petroleum hydrocarbons at concentrations of more than 50 micrograms per liter. The water samples collected at these depths had no odor of oil and were clear. “The plume was not a river of Hershey’s Syrup,” said Reddy. “But that’s not to say it isn’t harmful to the environment.”

No Unusual Oxygen Signals
The scientists benefited not only from new technology but older methods as well. Contrary to previous predictions by other scientists, they found no “dead zones,” regions of significant oxygen depletion within the plume where almost no fish or other marine animals could survive. They attributed the discrepancy to a problem with the more modern measuring devices that can give artificially low oxygen readings when coated by oil. The team on Endeavor used an established chemical test developed in the 1880s to check the concentration of dissolved oxygen in water samples, called a Winkler titration. Of the dozens of samples analyzed for oxygen only a few from the plume layer were below expected levels, and even these samples were only slightly depleted. 

WHOI geochemist Benjamin Van Mooy, also a principal investigator of the research team, said this finding could have significant implications. “If the oxygen data from the plume layer are telling us it isn’t being rapidly consumed by microbes near the well,” he said, “the hydrocarbons could persist for some time. So it is possible that oil could be transported considerable distances from the well before being degraded.”

A Rapid Response
The NSF RAPID program, which provides grants for projects having a severe urgency and require quick-response research on natural disasters or other unanticipated events, significantly speeded up the acceptance of the WHOI proposals.  “In contrast to the usual six-to-eighteen-month lead time for standard scientific proposals, our plume study was funded two days after the concept was proposed to NSF and went from notification of the proposal’s acceptance to boarding the Endeavor in two-and-a-half weeks,” Reddy said.

Within days of being notified of the award, Reddy said the WHOI team reached out to NOAA, offering assistance in the laborious, but important, process of collecting and analyzing water samples for natural resource damage assessment (NRDA).  In addition to conducting the work NSF funded, the WHOI team worked cooperatively with NOAA to collect data that will be used to determine damages and calculate a fair settlement for those affected by the massive spill.

“Doing a NRDA cruise is not a trivial effort. It requires a tremendous amount of coordination -- from accommodating additional on-board observers to ensure a chain of custody to arranging for samples to be ferried from the research vessels every few days,” said Avery.  “I’m very proud of what this team has accomplished.



“Very good science was done that will make a big difference,” Avery added. “This cruise represents an excellent example of how non-federal research organizations can work with federal agencies and how federal agencies can work together to respond to national disasters.”



While at sea, these scientists, who are experienced in the study of oil spills and natural oil seeps, faced unusual challenges from the extreme heat, water rationing, exposure to crude oil and its vapors, and 24-hour-a-day operations enabled by the URI crew.


Along with their own scientific objectives, the team also bore in mind the advice of top science officials speaking at a June 3 Gulf Oil Spill Scientific Symposium at Louisiana State University, who cautioned researchers about the importance of verification and proceeding in a scientific manner:



“We are all served best by proceeding in a careful, thoughtful, and quantifiable manner, where we can actually document everything and share it publicly,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told those assembled.



At that meeting, US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt underscored the need for peer review of interpretive results before they are released, saying "There's nothing that throws the community into dead ends faster” than to have [poor] data out there.



Assistant Director of NSF Tim Killeen also echoed the sentiment that “quality assurance and quality control are essential for thorough work.”



“WHOI scientists attending this meeting took this advice to heart and used it as a guiding light for proper dissemination of scientific information,” Reddy said.



Reddy said the results from this study and more samples yet to be analyzed eventually could refine recent estimates about the amount of the spilled oil that remains in the Gulf.


Camilli said he and his WHOI colleagues are considering a new research proposal to look for more plumes.



Reddy said the WHOI team members know the chemical makeup of some of the plume, but not all of it. Gas chromatographic analysis of plume samples confirm the existence of benzene, toluene, ethybenzene, and total xylenes—together, called BTEX at concentrations in excess of 50 micrograms per liter. “The plume is not pure oil,” Camilli said. “But there are oil compounds in there.”



It may be “a few months of laboratory analysis and validation,” Reddy said, before they know the entire inventory of chemicals in the plume.



Camilli attributed the project’s success to WHOI’s wide range of expertise and scientific capabilities. He contrasted that with “what the oil industry does best: They know where to drill holes and how to get the oil to come out. WHOI’s expertise in oil spill forensics, marine ecological assessment, and deep submergence technology development will be essential for our nation as it updates its energy policy and offshore oil production confronts the challenges of deepwater operations.”



Other WHOI members of study team included Assistant Scientist James C. Kinsey and Research Associates Cameron P. McIntyre and Sean P. Sylva. The research team also included Michael V. Jakuba of the University of Sydney, Australia, and a graduate of the MIT/WHOI joint program in Oceanographic Engineering, and James V. Maloney of Monitor Instruments Co.



The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.




Last updated: August 19, 2010

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Gulf oil traces spread east on sea floor, researchers say

From Ed Lavandera and Rich Phillips, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Florida researchers find oil traces in undersea Gulf canyon
  • Plankton showed "strong toxic response" to the crude, initial results show
  • Researchers say the oil could resurface later

St. Petersburg, Florida (CNN) -- Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill may have settled to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico further east than previously suspected and at levels toxic to marine life, researchers reported Monday.

Initial findings from a new survey of the Gulf conclude that dispersants may have sent the oil to the ocean floor, where it has turned up at the bottom of an undersea canyon within 40 miles of the Florida Panhandle. Plankton and other organisms showed a "strong toxic response" to the crude, according to researchers from the University of South Florida.

"The dispersant is moving the oil down out of the surface and into the deeper waters, where it can affect phytoplankton and other marine life," said John Paul, a marine microbiologist at USF.

Results of the latest survey are scheduled to be released Tuesday, but CNN obtained a summary of the initial conclusions Monday night. Tests conducted offshore indicate the oil matches the 205-million-gallon Deepwater Horizon spill, which has been temporarily capped for a month, the summary states.

Some of it has spread into the DeSoto Canyon, a channel on the ocean floor east of the ruptured well. That canyon comprises part of the spawning grounds for much of the Gulf's commercial fish. "To date, this is the easternmost location for the occurrence of subsurface oils," the report states.

The oil is not "draping" across the bottom, but is spread out in "small, unevenly distributed droplets," the report states. USF chemical oceanographer David Hollander said that when an ultraviolet light used to detect oil was turned onto the sea floor, "All of a sudden, it turns out to be a constellation of little dots."

And the oil could well up onto the continental shelf and resurface later, Paul said. Or it could be eaten by fish and other animals and accumulate in the food chain, Hollander said.

"It's in such small droplets that you can see it -- you can filter it and see it," he said. "But if you look at it, it's transparent, and small larval fish see these droplets as food so they're ingesting pure oil."

The Environmental Protection Agency has previously reported some oil turning up in the sediment at the bottom of the Gulf, but has not determined whether it came from the Deepwater Horizon spill that erupted in April or whether it was already present. And on August 4, the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration warned that oil could persist in the water even though the well has been temporarily capped.

The oil company BP used more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants on the Deepwater Horizon spill between its eruption in late April and the time the well was capped in mid-June. BP says the chemicals allowed the oil to be broken up into droplets small enough that microbes can digest it, and the Environmental Protection Agency has said the dispersants were no more toxic than the oil itself.

Critics warned the full effect of the dispersants on the food chain was not known, and that their use in deep water effectively concealed the full extent of the spill.

NOAA spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm told CNN on Monday that she had not seen the latest study and couldn't comment on it. BP spokesman John Curry, meanwhile, said the company wants "to know everything everyone wants to know."

The company is responsible for capping, cleaning up and compensating victims of the oil spill, and it has committed to spending $500 million to research the spill's impact over the next 10 years. The latest study will "add another piece to the puzzle," Curry said.

"There will be others that'll want to look at this study and want to look at doing some additional research," he said. "There's been extensive testing up to this point, and I'm sure there will be much more going forward."


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Gulf's Deep Waters May Have Low Oxygen Levels for Years Due to Spill
By ELIZABETH BEWLEY 
Gannett Washington Bureau 

WASHINGTON - Long after the damaged BP well off Louisiana's coast is permanently sealed off, an invisible threat will continue to lurk thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico: methane gas. 

On land, methane helps heat homes and provide electricity. But in the ocean, methane can create oxygen-depleted "dead zones" where marine life can't survive. 

Methane made up about half the hydrocarbon blend that spewed from the BP well for 87 days until engineers capped it, said John Kessler, a chemical oceanographer at Texas A&M University who led a Gulf expedition in June. "We found that most of (the methane) is staying dissolved in deep waters, and very little of it is making it out into the atmosphere," Kessler said. 

That's good news for the atmosphere, since methane is a potent greenhouse gas. But high concentrations of natural gas in the water encourage rapid reproduction of methane-eating microorganisms, which deplete the water of oxygen as they digest. 

Kessler said his crew measured 30 percent oxygen reduction in some areas around the spill. Some scientists say that's enough to endanger marine life. 

Oxygen depletion in the water causes marine animals to experience symptoms similar to altitude sickness in humans, said Steve DiMarco, a Texas A&M oceanographer who studies oxygen depletion. "When oxygen levels are a lot less, people start to feel sick, faint," he said. "If we can impose that onto these organisms, they're probably feeling that as well." 

Oxygen depletion isn't unusual in the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient runoff from farm fields pours into the Gulf at the mouth of the Mississippi River each summer, creating a seasonal dead zone around the Louisiana coast. 

But oxygen depletion caused by the oil spill affects water further from shore, at depths over 3,000 feet. While oxygen around the spill hasn't dropped to dead-zone levels, further declines could kill jellyfish, giant squid, certain types of fish, shrimp and other deep-water creatures. Scientists say endangered sperm whales and leatherback turtles, which eat squid and jellyfish, also are at risk. 

Small, oxygen-sensitive sediment dwellers such as crabs, worms, small fish and coral may suffer too, said Robert Carney, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University. These creatures often live near natural methane sources in the seabed, but natural seeps are a mere trickle compared to the massive hydrocarbon flood of the past 12 weeks. 

BP's use of dispersants - chemicals that break oil into small droplets to keep it from reaching the surface - has made the oxygen problem worse, according to Steve Murawski, chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service. Smaller droplets of oil are easier for microorganisms to eat, he said. Plus, oil that stays submerged eludes cleanup efforts, meaning it may affect the Gulf's oxygen balance for years. 

Dispersants represent a trade-off that no one is entirely happy with, said Murawski. "The whole theory is to keep oil from the surface so we don't have to fight it in the marshes," he said. But he added, "we are concerned about what the methane being released is doing to the oxygen budget." 

Oil on the surface will eventually evaporate, be burned by cleanup crews, or wash ashore where it can be scooped off of beaches. Fast, wind-blown surface currents will dilute it to less harmful concentrations. But in the deep sea, slow currents, cold temperatures, and a dearth of oxygen-replenishing plants likely will keep oil concentrated and oxygen levels low for a decade or longer, scientists say. 

"Six months ago, I wondered what I'll be doing in twenty years," DiMarco said with a rueful laugh. "I'm pretty sure I'll still be monitoring this spill." - Contact Elizabeth Bewley at ebewley(AT)gannett.com.
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USF says government tried to squelch their oil plume findings

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer 
In Print: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A month after the Deepwater Horizon disaster began, scientists from the University of South Florida made a startling announcement. They had found signs that the oil spewing from the well had formed a 6-mile-wide plume snaking along in the deepest recesses of the gulf.

The reaction that USF announcement received from the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agencies that sponsored their research:

Shut up.

"I got lambasted by the Coast Guard and NOAA when we said there was undersea oil," USF marine sciences dean William Hogarth said. Some officials even told him to retract USF's public announcement, he said, comparing it to being "beat up" by federal officials.

The USF scientists weren't alone. Vernon Asper, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi, was part of a similar effort that met with a similar reaction. "We expected that NOAA would be pleased because we found something very, very interesting," Asper said. "NOAA instead responded by trying to discredit us. It was just a shock to us."

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, in comments she made to reporters in May, expressed strong skepticism about the existence of undersea oil plumes — as did BP's then-CEO, Tony Hayward.

"She basically called us inept idiots," Asper said. "We took that very personally."

Lubchenco confirmed Monday that her agency told USF and other academic institutions involved in the study of undersea plumes that they should hold off talking so openly about it. "What we asked for, was for people to stop speculating before they had a chance to analyze what they were finding," Lubchenco said. "We think that's in everybody's interest. … We just wanted to try to make sure that we knew something before we speculated about it."

"We had solid evidence, rock solid," Asper said. "We weren't speculating." If he had to do it over again, he said, he'd do it all exactly the same way, despite Lubchenco's ire.

Coast Guard officials did not respond to a request for comment on Hogarth's accusation.

The discovery of multiple undersea plumes of oil droplets was eventually verified by one of NOAA's own research vessels. And last month USF scientists announced they at last could match the oil droplets in the undersea plumes to the millions of barrels of oil that gushed from the collapsed well until it was capped July 15.

"What we have learned completely changes the idea of what an oil spill is," USF scientist David Hollander said then. "It has gone from a two-dimensional disaster to a three-dimensional catastrophe."

Now Lubchenco is not only convinced the undersea plumes exist, but she is predicting that some of the spill's most significant impacts will be caused by their effect on juvenile sea creatures such as bluefin tuna. Lubchenco and her staff say they are now working smoothly with USF and other academic institutions in investigating the consequences of the largest marine oil spill in history.

However, Hogarth said, not all is hunky-dory.

USF's first NOAA-sponsored voyage to take samples after Deepwater Horizon, the one that turned up evidence of the undersea plumes, was designed to gather evidence for use in an eventual court case against BP and other oil companies involved in the disaster. At the end of the voyage, USF turned its samples over to NOAA, expecting to get either a shared analysis or the samples themselves back. So far, Hogarth said, they've received neither.

NOAA's top oil spill scientist, Steve Murawski, said Monday that he was "sure we will release the data" at some point. However, he said, because NOAA has collected so many samples over the past three months, when it comes to the samples from USF's trip in May, "I'm not sure where they are."

Lubchenco's agency came under fire last week for a new report that said "the vast majority" of the oil from Deepwater Horizon had been taken care of. Scientists who read the report closely said it actually said half the oil was still unaccounted for.

Lubchenco said anyone who read the report as saying the oil was gone read it wrong.

"Out of sight and diluted does not mean benign," she said.


[Last modified: Aug 10, 2010 08:23 AM] 

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Louisiana Fishermen Slam Claims that Oil Almost Gone, Seafood Safe
Fishing grounds are full of oil-soaked marsh grass and tarballs, with shrimp season set to open next week, locals say

HOPEDALE, LA.— In the small towns of coastal Louisiana, the widespread consensus is that the oil is far from gone.

Fishermen return from working on cleanup crews or from recreational angling trips with stories of crabs whose lungs are black with oil, or of oysters with shells covered in sludge. They take photos and carry tarballs home like talismans to show what they have seen. They talk about their fears with anyone who will listen, and often their voices are tinged with panic.

Yet a government report released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that 75 percent of the oil has been cleaned up, dispersed or otherwise contained. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that of all the samples of seafood that have been tested since the oil spill, none have shown evidence of contamination.

While some in the coastal seafood industry agree with these assessments, a majority seem to view the news with a sense of betrayal.

"The cleanup isn't even close to being done," said Karen Hopkins of Dean Blanchard Seafood, which accounts for about 11 percent of the U.S. shrimp supply, on the barrier island of Grand Isle.

"The last thing I want to do is scare anyone away from the seafood down here," said Dawn Nunez, standing at the counter of the shrimp wholesale business and deli she owns in the tiny fishing town of Hopedale. "But if I’m not eating it or feeding it to my children, I can’t advise anyone else to eat it either."

On their dock across the street, Dawn's husband Marty Nunez pulls a clump of oil-ridden marsh grass out of a plastic bag.

"There's people fishing where this is at – or worse than this," he said. "I can't understand how they say things are getting back to normal."

Nunez surreptitiously picked the grass while working as part of BP'sVessels of Opportunity cleanup operation on Monday. For him the oil-soaked grass is a symbol of a lurking threat. Like many other people living along the coast, Nunez is confident that vast quantities of oil remain in the environment, despite highly publicized announcements to the contrary.

"Our fishermen bring home grass and tarballs and then we watch the news and they say there is no sign of oil," said Dawn Nunez. "Where did it go? Where did millions of gallons of oil go if it's not in the Gulf?"

A widely held theory is that the 1.8 million gallons of dispersants that were sprayed during the cleanup operation caused the oil to sink to the bottom.

"I've been working with oil all my life," said Brian Zito, a commercial fisherman on Grand Isle. "Dispersant is like a soap, and if you wash your hands in a bucket your water will be all white and soapy and fine. But let that bucket sit there for a few hours and see what happens – all that oil is going to come back together."

When they start trawling for shrimp or dredging for oysters, fishermen fear that the oil will get stirred up again.

For now that fear is largely untested. Although 5,144 square miles of federal waters affected by the oil spill had been deemed safe as of Tuesday, little of that good news applies to Louisiana. The state's three main fisheries are crab, oysters and shrimp – but the shrimp season doesn't open until next week. And crab and oyster fishing is almost entirely shut down because of the spill, as are most of the nearshore fishing grounds relied on by Louisiana's shrimpers.

But perhaps the biggest problem faced by the state's commercial fishermen is that they don't trust their own product. Even when the government decides they are allowed to fish in the marshes again, many say they are going to wait.

"I know what's out there and I'm not going to mess up my equipment with oil," Zito said in an often-repeated sentiment. "You can't even ride back there in a boat without stirring up tarballs, let alone put a net in the water."

Trawling for shrimp involves dragging a heavy chain, called a tickling chain, across the bottom of the marsh, lake or ocean. Shrimp that live in the muck swim up, and get scooped into the waiting net. And if oil is on the sea floor like the fishermen fear, that will get stirred up as well.

And if there is any contamination of the seafood, there is a very real chance that the individual fishermen could ultimately be held responsible. Past lawsuits filed by restaurant customers have made this possibility seem very real.

"We are going to have to buy product liability insurance on a product that we've never had to worry about before," Hopkins said.

Perhaps because of this, demand for Gulf Coast seafood is down. Marty Nunez said that the processor he has sold to for years called to warn him they wouldn’t be buying his product, should he get any in.

"They can't buy it because they can't sell it," he said. "They can’t even sell Gulf Coast shrimp that they have from last year."

But the fishermen facing this uncertain future stand to lose much more than a job. Many come from families that have hunted, fished and lived in Louisiana's swampy waterways for generations.

"This is a way of life," Nunez said. "It's what we eat, drink and breathe."


Jacoba Charles is on assignment for SolveClimate, reporting from Texas to Florida on the people living on the edge of the Gulf disaster.
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Blue crabs provide evidence of oil tainting Gulf 
food web
Published: Tuesday, August 10, 2010, 9:00 AM     Updated: Tuesday, August 10, 2010, 9:43 AM

To assess how heavy a blow the BP oil spill has dealt the Gulf of Mexico, researchers are closely watching a staple of the seafood industry and primary indicator of the ecosystem's health: the blue crab.

gulf_oil_blue_crab.JPGView full sizeSmall oil droplets are visible trapped inside the shell of an immature blue crab collected near Grand Isle by researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi and Tulane University.

Weeks ago, before engineers pumped in mud and cement to plug the gusher, scientists began finding specks of oil in crab larvae plucked from waters across the Gulf coast.

The government said last week that three-quarters of the spilled oil has been removed or naturally dissipated from the water. But the crab larvae discovery was an ominous sign that crude had already infiltrated the Gulf's vast food web -- and could affect it for years to come.

"It would suggest the oil has reached a position where it can start moving up the food chain instead of just hanging in the water," said Bob Thomas, a biologist at Loyola University in New Orleans. "Something likely will eat those oiled larvae ... and then that animal will be eaten by something bigger and so on."

Tiny creatures might take in such low amounts of oil that they could survive, Thomas said. But those at the top of the chain, such as dolphins and tuna, could get fatal "megadoses."

Marine biologists routinely gather shellfish for study. Since the spill began, many of the crab larvae collected have had the distinctive orange oil droplets, said Harriet Perry, a biologist with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

"In my 42 years of studying crabs I've never seen this," Perry said.

She wouldn't estimate how much of the crab larvae are contaminated overall, but said about 40 percent of the area they are known to inhabit has been affected by oil from the spill.

blue_crabs_hopedale.JPGView full sizeThese blue crabs were photographed in Hopedale on July 15.

While fish can metabolize dispersant and oil, crabs may accumulate the hydrocarbons, which could harm their ability to reproduce, Perry said in an earlier interview with Science magazine.

She told the magazine there are two encouraging signs for the wild larvae -- they are alive when collected and may lose oil droplets when they molt.

Tulane University researchers are investigating whether the splotches also contain toxic chemical dispersants that were spread to break up the oil but have reached no conclusions, biologist Caz Taylor said.

If large numbers of blue crab larvae are tainted, their population is virtually certain to take a hit over the next year and perhaps longer, scientists say. The spawning season occurs between April and October, but the peak months are in July and August.

How large the die-off would be is unclear, Perry said. An estimated 207 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf since an April 20 drilling rig explosion triggered the spill, and thousands of gallons of dispersant chemicals have been dumped.

Scientists will be focusing on crabs because they're a "keystone species" that play a crucial role in the food web as both predator and prey, Perry said.

Richard Condrey, a Louisiana State University oceanographer, said the crabs are "a living repository of information on the health of the environment."

Named for the light-blue tint of their claws, the crabs have thick shells and 10 legs, allowing them to swim and scuttle across bottomlands. As adults, they live in the Gulf's bays and estuaries amid marshes that offer protection and abundant food, including snails, tiny shellfish, plants and even smaller crabs. In turn, they provide sustenance for a variety of wildlife, from redfish to raccoons and whooping cranes.

Adults could be harmed by direct contact with oil and from eating polluted food. But scientists are particularly worried about the vulnerable larvae.

That's because females don't lay their eggs in sheltered places, but in areas where estuaries meet the open sea. Condrey discovered several years ago that some even deposit offspring on shoals miles offshore in the Gulf.

gulf_oil_glen_dexpaux_crab_trap.JPGView full sizeCrab fisher Glen Despaux was photographed with one of his crab traps on June 24 outside his home in Barataria.

The larvae grow as they drift with the currents back toward the estuaries for a month or longer. Many are eaten by predators, and only a handful of the 3 million or so eggs from a single female live to adulthood.

But their survival could drop even lower if the larvae run into oil and dispersants.

"Crabs are very abundant. I don't think we're looking at extinction or anything close to it," said Taylor, one of the researchers who discovered the orange spots.

Still, crabs and other estuary-dependent species such as shrimp and red snapper could feel the effects of remnants of the spill for years, Perry said.

"There could be some mortality, but how much is impossible to say at this point," said Vince Guillory, biologist manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Perry, Taylor and Condrey will be among scientists monitoring crabs for negative effects such as population drop-offs and damage to reproductive capabilities and growth rates.

Crabs are big business in the region. In Louisiana alone, some 33 million pounds are harvested annually, generating nearly $300 million in economic activity, Guillory said.

Blue crabs are harvested year-round, but summer and early fall are peak months for harvesting, Guillory said.

Prices for live blue crab generally have gone up, partly because of the Louisiana catch scaling back due to fishing closures, said Steve Hedlund, editor of SeafoodSource.com, a website that covers the global seafood industry.

Fishers who can make a six-figure income off crabs in a good year now are now idled -- and worried about the future.

"If they'd let us go out and fish today, we'd probably catch crabs," said Glen Despaux, 37, who sets his traps in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. "But what's going to happen next year, if this water is polluted and it's killing the eggs and the larvae? I think it's going to be a long-term problem."

John Flesher of The Associated Press wrote this report. 

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