Saturday, August 21, 2010

Gulf Oil Update: Day 124

Giant Underwater Plume Confirmed—Gulf Oil Not Degrading
Bacteria aren't gobbling up Deepwater Horizon oil, study says.

By: Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
Published August 19, 2010

A giant plume from BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been confirmed deep in the ocean—and there are signs that it may stick around, a new study says.

Many scientists had predicted that oil-eating bacteria—already common in the Gulf due to natural oil seeps—would process much of the crude leaked from BP's Deepwater Horizon wellhead, which was capped July 15.

But new evidence shows that a 22-mile-long (35-kilometer-long), 650-foot-high (200-meter-high) pocket of oil has persisted for months at depths of 3,600 feet (1,100 meters), according to a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts.

(Related: "Much Gulf Oil Remains, Deeply Hidden and Under Beaches.")

The oil plume's stability is "a little unexpected," study leader Richard Camilli, of WHOI's Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department, said at a Thursday press briefing in Washington, D.C.

"We don't have any clear indication as to why it set up at that depth."

It's unclear why the Gulf's microbes aren't eating the oil plume, but the organisms are infamous for being unpredictable, said study co-author Christopher Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI.

Counting on microbes to quickly clean up an oil spill is "like asking a teenager to do a chore. You tell them to do it on a Friday, to do it when it's most advantageous, and they do it on a Saturday," Reddy told National Geographic News earlier this month.

Further studies are needed to figure out why the plume isn't degrading, Reddy said during the press briefing: "We don't live in the world of the TV show CSI. ... Patience is a virtue."

Hard Evidence for Gulf Oil Plume

During a ten-day research cruise in June, the WHOI team used autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), free-swimming probes that are the "next generation" of remotely operated vehicles, Camilli said during the briefing.

The team's AUVs were equipped with mass spectrometers—devices that measure the masses of molecules. The spectrometers collected thousands of samples in various regions near the spill site.

Most of these samples detected hydrocarbons—ingredients of oil—at concentrations of 50 micrograms a liter.

Using this data, the scientists were able to piece together the shapes and sizes of two oil plumes: the large, deep plume and a more diffuse plume spread out between depths of 160 and 1,600 feet (50 and 500 meters).

University of South Florida (USF) chemical oceanographer David Hollander said the discovery of stubborn oil in the deep sea "falls right into line" with his recent findings.

"These hydrocarbons are plentiful, and will be around for a long time," Hollander said by email.

Hollander and a USF team announced this week that oil may have been found deep on the Gulf seafloor, and that it appears to be toxic to phytoplankton, small plants that live in the deep ocean and make up the base of the marine food chain.

It's too early to say whether the plume is harmful to marine life in the area studied by WHOI, expedition member Reddy said.

But the research does show that the oil plume hasn't yet spurred oxygen depletion in the Gulf, which can create a dead zone—a swath of ocean largely devoid of life-forms—according to Ruoying He, a physical oceanographer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who was not involved in the new research.

(Related: "Gulf Oil Spill a 'Dead Zone in the Making'?")

He added that the new study—published today in the journal Science—is "extremely important," in part because it offers hard evidence of the suspected oil plume in the Gulf.

"I'm happy to see some in situ observations published so quickly," he said.

How Far Will Gulf Oil Plume Go?

The study raises another fundamental question that North Carolina's He is currently modeling: How far will the Gulf oil spill travel?

The plume has already fanned out a considerable distance from the BP wellhead, He noted. At the time of the survey, the plume was migrating about 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) a day southwest from the spill site, according to the study.

And with oil-eating bacteria taking their time, it's possible that the oil could be transported even farther from the well before the crude gets degraded, WHOI's Camilli said.

(See "Gulf Oil Spill Could Reach East Coast Beaches.")

It's also possible the oil plume is already gone: "We don't know what the fate of this plume now is—this was a forensic snapshot in late June, and we have not been back there since," Camilli cautioned.

Deep-Ocean Focus Needed for Oil Cleanups

Since the toxic effects of oil and chemical dispersants are not fully known, "there is great room for debate and contrasting interpretation as to what the impacts will be," Robert Carney, a biological oceanographer at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, said by email.

At this point, though, a "far more valuable undertaking" would be to start figuring out how to prevent doing further harm to the deep ocean, he said.

"Through this all we have witnessed an aged and untested bit of dogma dominate response decisions: Protect the beach," Carney said. (See: "Oil Found in Gulf Beach Sand, Even After Cleanups.")

"Quite obviously, it is the whole ocean that we must protect and effectively manage," he said. "We are badly in need of new ideas."


Dispersant controversy, oil plumes persist in the Gulf

Rocky Kistner’s Blog
Switchboard, NRDC
Posted August 20, 2010

Down a winding road that hugs the water of Bayou La Batre in southern Alabama, out-of-work shrimp boats float quietly along the piers. Near the end of the road, the Alabama state dock houses a dozen twin-engine, steel-hulled boats that BP has under contract to do oil cleanup work. Police cars guard the entrance.

Across the harbor at the end of the public pier, four large white plastic containers sit on pallets labeled: "Nalco Corexit EC9005A. Oil Spill dispersant. Caution: may cause irritation with prolonged contact…do not get in eyes, on skin, on clothing...." Some of the containers have black hand-written letters on the back that says "oil waste water" or "clean water." Another container sits further away on a pallet by itself, with the same warning label but clean.

Earlier last week, eye witnesses say similar containers were next to the BP contracted boats that make their trips into the Gulf. Some fishermen in this area believe these boats continue to spray chemical dispersants on the oil that continues to pollute the water and shores here. Workers who worked for BP have said when they return to the docks in the afternoon, BP boats with dispersants leave to finish off the job later in the day or at night.

Yet no one seems to have proof of this. The government and BP deny they have been spraying dispersants since mid-July. But some fishermen say it’s still happening. They say those who may have proof are too afraid to come forward for fear of losing their jobs.

Dion Sutton is a former BP worker who wonders if they are still spraying. His cousin saw a plane spraying close to the nearby shore about a month ago, something BP said it has never done. Like many fishermen around here, Sutton believes it’s all about sinking the crude to the bottom, out of sight out of mind.

Common stories about spraying persist across the Gulf states, just like the oil that still moves ashore in patches, tar balls and underwater plumes. Walk to beaches of Alabama’s Dauphin Island and you can’t help but run into it, fresh blobs of weathered oil that stain once world famous white sand beaches. Take a shovel and dig and you find layers of black oily material. Thick, black clay-like oil is pushed up in man-made sand dunes, almost sticking to the vacation houses that line the beach.

Some people in Alabama are sick of being told the water's fine and are taking matters into their own hands. Commercial fisherman “Catfish” Miller has designed his own homemade testing device to hunt for plumes in the water. Yesterday, Catfish designed a unique device consisting of a large conical wire tomato plant holder he had in his backyard. He carefully bent it and wrapped white absorbent pads around the outside to create a funnel.

Yesterday with more than 10 passengers on board, including a marine biologist, he dropped the cone-shaped device into 12 feet of water near Pass Christian, AL. He left it in the water for less than a minute, then pulled it in to see how much oil it had captured in the absorbant pads. Ten times he dropped it into the water near the inland harbor. Ten times he struck oil.

“It blew their minds,” he says. “Every time we dropped it into the water it captured oil. Why can’t the experts find this? I’m going to keep at this until people really understand what’s going on here. It’s nothing more than a cover-up.”

Many people who attended a gathering of fishermen and experts last night in Irvington, AL, agree. While government reports claim up to 75% of the oil is gone, captured or dispersed, the vast majority of people attending this meeting said the oil is not only still out there, but it’s just begun to impact communities.

Prof. Steve Picou of the University of South Alabama knows that well, since he’s studied the devastating impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster on the town of Cordova, AK. He says oil catastrophes such as these pit community members against each other. Some get to work on cleanup, others don’t. It’s a situation that creates conflict as people try to figure out how to reorganize their lives and make ends meet.

Rates of suicides, divorce and reports of battered women skyrocketed in Alaska years later. “This is a marathon," Picou says. “It’s not a 100-meter dash. And the gun just went off.”

Dr. George Crozier, a marine scientist with the Dauphin Island Sea lab, says what bothers him most is what we don’t know. No doubt dispersants have kept some of the oil out of the marshes and coastlines. But they also have pushed the oil down into the water column where the crude may not degrade for a long time. How will this impact the bioaccumulation of oil and the health of the ecosystem? No one knows anything for sure except that it’s out there in unquantifiable amounts. “There’s no doubt we have created a monster in the Gulf of Mexico," Crozier told the audience. “We’ve learned a lot so far. But the oil is not gone.”

Gulf Shores commercial fisherman Raymond Vates told the audience he recently decided to take his scuba gear and go down to the shallow bottom of the seabed off the beach and look around for himself. What he saw appalled him. He says he saw giant pools of oily tar balls on the muddy bottom in just 20 feet of water, some as big as watermelons.

“I called BP about this but they didn’t want to hear it,” Vates said. “How could you act that way when you saw what I saw? There were kids swimming in the water around there. We can’t allow this to go on. I’m going to keep looking for it as long as I can find it.”

That may keep him busy for a long time. Fishermen from Florida to Louisiana are worried about their seafood and their safety. They don’t believe what they’re being told by the experts, especially by those working with BP. They’ve learned to believe only what they see with their own eyes. And so far they don’t like what they've seen.