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article imageScientists: 79% of oil spill still 'lurks in the deep'

By Lynn Herrmann     Aug 18, 2010 in Environment
New research challenges the Obama administration’s stance on the BP oil spill as being “absolutely incorrect” and shows at least 79 percent of the oil remains under the Gulf of Mexico’s surface, far from view and wreaking more havoc on marine life
Two new scientific reports have raised serious alarms over BP’s Gulf of Mexico debacle, suggesting 79 percent of the crude oil that spewed into the Gulf remains concealed below the ocean surface.
A report released by University of Georgia researchers on Monday, has concluded most of the oil remains as underwater plumes and continues to threaten marine life. Their research is drawn from data analysis of the National Incident Command (NIC) Report issued on August 2, in which a pie chart “oil budget” determined only 25 percent of the spilled oil remained in the Gulf.
“One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless,’’ Charles Hopkinson, Georgia Sea Grant director and a marine scientist at the University of Georgia, said in a statement on Monday.
The group noted a government oversight, the fact that only oil at the surface can evaporate. Much of the oil remains trapped below the surface in a toxic mix with dispersants.
“The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade. We are still far from a complete understanding of what its impacts are.’’
Samantha Joye, professor of marine sciences at UGA, added that both the Sea Grant report and NIC report are best estimates and coordinated research must be sustained to grasp the world’s worst maritime oil disaster. She issued a terse statement, noting neither report take into account escaped hydrocarbon gases.
“That’s a gaping hole,” Joye said, “because hydrocarbon gasses are a huge portion of what was ejected from the well.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Hopkinson said: “The idea that 75 per cent of the oil is gone and is of no further concern to the environment is just absolutely incorrect," according to al-Jazeera.
In a second report released by scientists from the University of South Florida on Tuesday, research shows tremendous amounts of toxic oil has settled to the ocean floor.
Using UV light for detecting subsurface oil, the research team found much of the oil has moved much farther east in the Gulf than originally thought, settling into a deep fissure that starts just 40 miles from Panama City Beach.
The Desoto Canyon is a crucial undersea canyon stretching from near the Florida panhandle to the Deepwater Horizon site.
David Hollander, a marine geochemist at USF and part of a 10-day expedition aboard the research vessel Weatherbird II, said oil could impact the Florida panhandle region if large storms or hurricanes target the area.
“The conduit aspect," says Hollander, "that there may be a mechanism to bring subsurface oils with dispersants potentially to the continental margin seems to be potentially reality."
Hollander notes bacteria on the Gulf’s surface is quite sensitive to the oil while plankton on the ocean bottom is impacted by the mix of oil and dispersants used by BP.
"The smaller organisms seem to be affected more quickly. So things like fish larvae, which could see small droplets, could consume them," he said, according to WUSF. "And that's 100 percent oil. Fish eggs - if they're in that environment - they may not be consuming it, but it's like paint in the air. You breathe it at low concentrations for a long enough time, you're still going to have that response."
Desoto Canyon is one of the primary spawning grounds for fish species off the Florida coast. Preliminary sediment and water tests taken from the edge of the canyon and near the spill site show “a dense constellation of microscopic blue stars on the sediment surface and in the filter pads,” according to the USF report. The resulting signals match BP’s MC252 oil.
The two new reports defy recent government statements suggesting the oil spill is virtually nonexistent.
Speaking at the White House on August 4, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) director Jane Lubchenco said: “At least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system, and most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches."
On morning news programs earlier this month, White House energy advisor Carol Browner said: “More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone."
Still,there are experts choosing to support the government’s assertion on the disappearing oil, suggesting an act of flabbergasting is likely to occur once we all realize how insignificant the spill was.
Edward Overton, an environmental chemist and professor emeritus at Louisiana State University, said in an interview last week that “I don’t think it’s still lurking out there,” in obvious agreement over dissipation of the crude oil.
“The Gulf is incredible in its resiliency and ability to clean itself up,” he added. “I think we are going to be flabbergasted by the little amount of damage that has been caused by this spill.”
Justin Kenney, spokesman for NOAA, in a statement on Tuesday argued for support of the government report, noting its calculations were based “on direct measurements whenever possible and the best available scientific estimates where direct measurements were not possible.”
He then added: "Additionally, the government and independent scientists involved in the oil budget have been clear that oil and its remnants left in the water represent a potential threat, which is why we continue to rigorously monitor, test and assess short and long term ramifications."
Speaking to the Associated Press, Hopkinson noted the misrepresentation of government data in stating: “The bottom line is most of it is still out there. There’s nothing in the report to substantiate the 26 percent.”
USF researchers are conducting analysis on oil contamination in larger organisms such as fish larvae which won’t be available for several weeks.
The Weatherbird II is scheduled to make another Gulf trip in September.
More about Deepwater horizon, Oil spill, New research
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