Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. James Wilder Jr. back at running Canada


    Remember when former Plant High star and Florida State running back James Wilder Jr. announced he was switching to linebacker?

    That was short-lived, apparently.

  2. Unlicensed contractor accused of faking death triggers policy change at Pinellas construction licensing board

    Local Government

    The unlicensed contractor accused of faking his death to avoid angry homeowners has triggered an immediate change in policy at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

    Last year Glenn and Judith Holland said they paid a contractor thousands of dollars to renovate their future retirement home in Seminole. But when they tried to move in on Dec. 14, they said the home was in shambles and uninhabitable. They sent a text message to contractor Marc Anthony Perez at 12:36 p.m. looking for answers. Fourteen minutes later, they got back this text: "This is Marc's daughter, dad passed away on the 7th of December in a car accident. Sorry." Turns out Perez was still alive. Now the Hollands are suing him in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  3. What you need to know for Tuesday, June 27


    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    Former St. Petersburg mayor and current mayoral candidate Rick Baker, left, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman square off tonight in a debate. [Times]
  4. Once 'angry' about Obamacare, Republican David Jolly came to see it as 'safety net'


    Former Congressman David Jolly, who ran against Obamacare in 2013, said in an interview Monday night that he now considers it a "safety net."

  5. Five children hospitalized after chlorine release at Tampa pool store


    Five children were sickened at a pool store north of Tampa on Monday after a cloud of chlorine was released, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.