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USF scientists try to tie oil cloud to BP spill

The front-page story in the New York Times last month described gigantic plumes of oil lurking beneath the Gulf of Mexico, a threat unlike anything ocean experts had ever seen.

BP wasn't buying it. Nor was the government.

The findings, produced by a team of scientists aboard the research vessel Pelican, were based on faulty methods, claimed experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That's when the University of South Florida entered the fray.

Armed with high-tech monitoring equipment, a 115-foot research boat and their own team of experts, USF's College of Marine Science suddenly found itself thrust into the middle of a national environmental crisis.

"This is our shoreline; we understand it. We have been studying this environment for years, decades, some of us,'' said David Hollander, USF chemical oceanographer. "We knew what they were looking at was something real.''

With so much at stake, USF joined the race for answers.

• • •

USF oceanographer Ernst Peebles began noticing a basic mathematical irregularity: oil clumping on the surface did not begin to add up to the amount estimated to be gushing like a firehose a mile below the surface.

Where was rest of the oil, he wondered, and how was it reacting to the ocean water and currents?

Peebles, seven scientists and a crew of seven set out in late May on a weeklong mission aboard the state-of-the-art Weatherbird II.

"We put labs in a can these days," Hollander said.

Sensors on the research vessel took constant samples of the water and reported suspicious layers a quarter-mile beneath the surface. The technology didn't spell out what was happening, but at least scientists knew where to look.

Metal gliders, shaped liked bullets and equipped with sophisticated instruments, were tossed into the water, where they cruised up and down, looking for oil.

Scientists also employed a series of metal canisters, known as CTD rosettes, capable of taking samples more than a mile deep.

The Weatherbird II crew took samples at 10 locations. So far, scientists from NOAA have analyzed samples from only three sites: 40 and 45 nautical miles northeast of the wellhead and at 142 nautical miles southeast of the wellhead.

NOAA tests determined that all three sites contained low-level concentrations of hydrocarbons.

The tests further confirmed that USF scientists had found two layers of oil clouds at varying locations, hundreds of feet undersea. One was part of a patch of oil 22 miles wide, 6 miles long, about 30 yards thick and about a quarter-mile beneath the surface.

The other extended about a mile deep but quickly became too diffuse to track, stretching for about 30 miles. It appeared that this cloud had two paths. One was southwest of the wellhead, and apparently was the cloud discovered by the Pelican research boat; a second path, discovered by Weatherbird II, was northeast of the wellhead.

"You have to measure it chemically because you can't see it," Hollander said.

The miniscule undissolved droplets were collected using specialized microscopic filters, showing up as light brown, circular marks.

So, are they harmful?

The Environmental Protection Agency says no, Hollander said.

"The environmental biologist or chemist would say it's not just about concentration,'' he added. "It's about how much water with those concentrations are flowing by you. It's how long you are by those low concentrations. This low concentration water may be affecting you for years and years."

• • •

The mission behind them, USF scientists keyed in on the hard part: tying the micron-sized hydrocarbons to BP's crude oil.

The oil cloud could have come from a few sources, including natural oil seeps, dispersed surface oil or other leaking rigs.

Hollander is fairly certain the hydrocarbons are from the Deepwater Horizon, but he won't be positive until he matches them with a technique he likens to chemical fingerprinting.

And it's not just a matter of science.

Millions of dollars in research money is on the line. If the oil is not from BP's well, BP won't pay for the research.

Hollander made headlines last week when, during the announcement confirming the hydrocarbons, he said BP refused to hand over a sample of oil from its Deepwater Horizon well.

The sample is key to determining whether the invisible oil traces detected by USF scientists are from the blown oil well, he said. USF has since applied for a sample through official channels, which BP is processing, he said.

But Hollander says he has already started to analyze the chemical makeup of BP's crude, thanks to an unidentified friend in the scientific community.

Hopefully, he said, that means more answers are on the way.

"It's a process of elimination," he said. "The idea is that if you're 99 percent convinced, you have to be 100 percent certain."

USF scientists try to tie oil cloud to BP spill 06/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 9:52pm]
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