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FSU oceanographer presses for truth on oil spill

Ian MacDonald watched in horror as the oil slick spread across the Gulf of Mexico. It looked overwhelmingly large, too large to match the estimates BP executives were sharing on television.

So MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanographer who has studied natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico for decades, decided to do his own math, producing a number five times greater than the official estimate of 200,000 gallons a day. He fired off an e-mail to his colleagues.

They aren't telling us the truth, it said.

Now, this once anonymous academic is the face of the scientific community's claims that BP and the federal government have understated the severity of the massive oil spill. He has railed against BP, federal regulators and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on CNN and in some of the most prestigious publications in Britain and the United States. His colleagues credit him with helping to draw more accurate flow estimates from BP and the federal government. Current reports have grown to up to 2.1 million gallons a day.

"He has certainly been a media phenomenon," said Ross Ellington, an FSU biochemist and chair of the state's Oil Spill Academic Task Force. "From our perspective, Ian's observation really provided the spark that got us going."

Before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, MacDonald, 58, had a difficult time persuading even government organizations that his work would someday make a difference. Oil spills were far from the most highly regarded area of research. Private financial backers didn't see the point.

As a young graduate student, he got a job with the federal Minerals Management Service studying how oil seeps interact with marine life. He boarded submarines, went deep into the sea and observed cultures and landscapes other people only dreamed about. He never wanted to leave.

MacDonald, a married father of two young adults, joined FSU this year to help raise awareness about what happens when oil spills and the sea clash. It is his job to determine whether deep drilling is safe. He thought it was.

The BP spill changed his mind. The company's safety plan referenced sea lions, walruses and other animals that don't live in the gulf. As MacDonald learned more about the spill, his confidence in federal regulators plummeted.

From his work, he knew there had to be a video of the oil plume.

"I kept saying, 'Well, where is it? Why aren't we seeing this on CNN or the nightly news?' " he said.

The gusher video soon went viral and Average Joes could finally see what MacDonald had been bemoaning for weeks. The spill was more expansive than anyone had initially concluded.

MacDonald was simply doing his job, said his peers.

"You look at everything and you can tell it is more than what you are hearing," said Bill Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.

MacDonald, who earns $120,000 a year at FSU, is determined to continue exposing what he calls BP's profit-driven response to the spill.

He and a team of scientists explored the Louisiana marshes last month.

On the news, the spill was called sheen, a thin, clear coat.

Not even close, MacDonald determined, observing the shimmery mess. The oil was nearly an inch thick. The fumes made him dizzy.

He took home a sample to study. He is waiting for test results.

"That's how science works," MacDonald said. "You hang in there and do your best and believe that what you are doing is useful."

FSU oceanographer presses for truth on oil spill 06/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 9:07pm]
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