USF, NOAA reseachers confirm oil plume

06/08/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today, scientists from the University of South Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reaffirmed a widespread suspicion: that there’s oil suspended beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. But they won’t say much else about it.

Dr. William Hogarth, dean of USF Marine Science, was plain about the significance of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

This is probably the largest environmental incident this country has ever faced. In doing so, it has presented a lot of problems for all of us who are trying to get our hands around it, trying to understand it.

Hogarth and his colleagues have seen the disaster’s fallout multiple times during research missions. Today, they presented results from the second research trip aboard the R/V Weatherbird II. NOAA’s Steve Murawski said water samples confirm something that BP has denied.

From the Weatherbird samples, NOAA confirms the presence of very low concentrations of subsurface hydrocarbons ... at all sampling depths from the surface to twelve hundred meters.

And today, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco also admitted this. Though reluctant to call the subsurface oil a plume, the researchers said they found particles of broken-down oil more than 40 nautical miles northeast of the ill-fated Macondo well. They also said they found oil in two layers — one at a depth of 400 feet, the other at a depth of 3,300 feet. Murawski said they’ve concluded a few other things, including the subsurface oil’s low concentration at sampling sites, that it’s not visible to the naked eye, and that it belongs to BP. But he said the unknowns far outnumber what’s known.

We've known that there's subsurface oil; it's pretty obvious that if you've got a source a mile down, it has to get from the bottom to the surface. So the real questions are these: Where is it? In what concentrations? Where is it going? And what are the potential consequences for people and the health of the marine environment?

The research team also said they found subsurface oil 142 nautical miles southeast of the blown-out well, but said the oil there was not BP’s. USF oceanographer David Hallander said a process called “fingerprinting” is essential in determining the source of the oil they found, since oil is known to naturally seep from beneath the ocean floor.

It's a pretty heavy toll that can come from the concept of a deep-water mass of oil. I think whose oil is that is something to know. Sure, there's a lot of weights of evidence — this plume, this Deepwater Horizon being twenty-two miles by six by thirty meters, having the identical material at a thousand meters — there's a lot of weights of evidence. But I don't think that carries the day.

But unlike Murawski, who works for NOAA, a government agency, Hallander said he couldn’t test his samples to confirm whether they were from BP.

I've tried to get a piece of the oil from a BP representative, and it was met with resistance.

Hallander said a BP employee he contacted gave a biting response to his request for a sample of BP oil from the Deepwater Horizon site. Still, he and his colleagues were reluctant to say whether this attitude reflects a bigger-picture problem on the part of BP. But Hallander said there was a little good news for Florida, at least when it comes to subsurface oil.

What we have here is the surface oil, and then here we have particles that are — again, these are invisible particles — that are, this was filtered from our first station, off the coast of Florida, in thousands of meters, a thousand meters of water. And what you see is nothing. And that's a great thing, because what this shows is that there are no hydrocarbons in this region at all. And so that's a very, very positive result — that is, the waters off the coast of Florida appear to have certainly no degraded oil.

But Bob Weisburg, a physical oceanographer at USF who has been studying the oil in its relation to the Gulf Loop Current, said there may be more bad news for Florida, which on Friday became the fourth Gulf Coast state to see oil from Deepwater Horizon on its shores. Weisburg said the current had broken from its northern portion, leaving the oil in an eddy, but may become reattached to its northern reaches.

It appears now that the Loop Current is reattaching to the eddy. And so now we do see some direct pathway to the Florida Straits. In fact, we deployed satellite-tracked surface drifters, and they actually did hang a left and started going into the Florida Straits.

He said there’s already evidence that it’s carried oil south.

And there is some indication that there is surface oil in the Florida Straits right now from the limited satellite imagery that we have. And so I think it's inevitable over time that there will be more oil getting into the Loop Current, and also into the Florida Straits.

The researchers admitted that there were still too many unknowns draw any more conclusions about behavior of oil in the Gulf. They said they expect research to extend over at least a decade. Governor Charlie Crist and U.S. Representative Kathy Castor have both written letters to Lamar Mackay, president of BP America, asking for 100 million dollars to fund Florida-based scientific research of the oil spill.

More WMNF coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

Sink: Feds not BP should take over cleanup

NRDC spokesman talks about his Gulf trip

Deepwater Horizon: An international perspective

Greg Palast on BP (part one)

NDRC spokesman talks about his Gulf trip

Chemical oil dispersants may harm environment

Behind "Drill, Baby, Drill"

Sen. Bill Nelson visits oil spill incident command post in St Pete

Two state legislators urge special session on drilling ban

Hillsborough BOCC opposes expanded oil drilling

Castor says BP thinks oil leak could be up to 60 thousand barrels per day

Congressional committee grills rig execs

Crist meets with BP in St Pete on oil disaster

Gulf Restoration Network responds to BP oil disaster

Sink still wants answers from BP on oil disaster

The suffering begins on the Gulf Coast

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