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USF gets $20 million to study 1979 Ixtoc oil spill as guide to Deepwater Horizon contamination

A consortium of science organizations led by the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science is getting a $20.2 million grant to continue leading studies of the impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster — in part by studying the impact of another Gulf of Mexico oil spill that happened in 1979.

"By looking into the past, it should enable us to look into the future," oceanographer Jacqueline E. Dixon, dean of USF's marine science program, said.

The Ixtoc 1 spill occurred in a section of the gulf called the Bay of Campeche, just north of the Mexican coast. Problems with drilling muds led to a blowout at the government-owned rig, which caught fire and collapsed — just like BP's Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana four years ago.

"Many things were similar," Dixon said.

The fire and scattered debris from Ixtoc 1 made capping the well so difficult that it continued spewing for nearly a year, dumping more than 3 million barrels of oil into the gulf.

Two months after the initial blowout, the first tar balls began showing up on the Texas shore. Soon the state's entire coastline was coated. A thousand birds needed cleaning. Tourism dropped by 60 percent.

Mexican and American scientists were given millions in government funds to track the effects of the Ixtoc spill. But then a tropical storm came along and pushed the oil away from the shore, and everyone assumed that was the end of it. When the oil disappeared, so did the research grants.

The Ixtoc oil wasn't gone, though, as Texans discovered the next time a storm hit their coast. Oily globs from "tar reefs" that had been buried offshore came loose and washed up on their beaches.

As bad as that was, it doesn't tell what effect Ixtoc might have had offshore, beneath the water's surface. That's the research that USF marine scientists hope to undertake now with help from their counterparts at Mexico's largest university, Dixon said.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster began in April 2010 with an explosion that killed 11 crew members. After the rig sank 5,000 feet to the bottom of the gulf, it began gushing oil, and because it was so deep, BP could not shut it until July. The oil washed ashore in marshes and on beaches from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

To try to stop the oil from reaching shore, BP sprayed a record amount of chemical dispersant on it, even spraying the chemicals deep underwater on the oil as it shot out of the broken rig.

Pundits initially said the spill had not turned out as badly as everyone feared. But USF scientists, equipped with their own research ship and working with a consortium that includes Eckerd College and Mote Marine Laboratory, were already exploring how the oil affected marine life.

They found, early on, that the dispersants had created a long plume of oil that snaked through the gulf's deep canyon. Later, when anglers caught fish with lesions, they detected that the cause was likely a loss of the immune system because of contact with the oil.

They found oil buried deep in the sediment around where the oil rig sank, like a dirty bathtub ring. And they discovered that it killed millions of amoebalike creatures in the area of the spill.

Part of USF's plan for spending the $20.2 million grant involves a gulfwide assessment of fish and sediment contamination to better understand and predict what happens to oil in case another disaster like this occurs.

The grant to USF is just the largest chunk of a $140 million program to help continue scientific investigations of the Deepwater Horizon disaster's impact.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.

USF gets $20 million to study 1979 Ixtoc oil spill as guide to Deepwater Horizon contamination 11/14/14 [Last modified: Monday, November 17, 2014 4:42pm]
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