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BP's Continued Denial Of Underwater Plumes Provokes Ridicule

Dan Froomkin

A person scoops crude oil from an oiled marsh near Brush Island, Louisiana, in May 2010. Huge plumes of crude from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are hovering in the ocean depths, silently spreading their poison and slowly devastating the underwater ecosystem, scientists warned this week. (AFP/Getty Images/File/Win McNamee)

An oceanographer just back from two weeks of taking water samples in
the Gulf of Mexico told a House panel on Wednesday that BP officials
are utterly wrong to keep saying there are no large masses of oil
lurking below the surface.

"I think part of the problem is that it depends on what the
definition of 'large' is," said Samantha Joye, a senior marine
scientist at the University of Georgia. "I don't know what their
definition of large is, but I'll bet it's not the same as mine."

Joye's instruments, deployed from a University of Miami research vessel, the Walton Smith,
detected both the presence of oil and the depletion of oxygen in very
deep water -- 900 to 1200 meters below the surface -- in a plume five
to eight miles away from the leak site. As she explained in an
interview: "All of the sensors we have to pick up oil and its various
components go crazy in the plume."

Lab results from one of the first research vessels doing subsurface tests found only minor concentrations of oil,
but Joye, who is expecting test results back shortly, said her samples
will inevitably show more than that. "These stank to high heaven," she
said. "They smelled like creosote, asphalt and diesel."

"These plumes are real," she said, "and it's not just oil." Joye, who blogged her research,
said she is also very concerned about the concentrations of methane and
other gases, such as ethane, propane, butane and pentane, in the water.

BP officials have routinely
tried to wave off the notion that much of the oil spewed from their
blown out well is suspended in the water column, killing wide swaths of
sea-life in the short run, and possibly endangering coastlines for
decades to come.

The latest denial came Wednesday morning
as BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told NBC "we haven't found
any large concentrations of oil under the sea, and to my knowledge no
one has."

But Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, whose House Energy subcommittee held Wednesday's briefing,
said afterward in a statement to the Huffington Post: "It's said that
sound travels for miles underwater, yet BP continues to be completely
deaf when it comes to warnings from scientists about these underwater
plumes. NOAA has found them. Independent scientists have seen them,
even smelled them. When will BP finally listen?"

Another witness before Markey's subcommittee had actually taken a
swim through underwater oil -- though much closer to the surface.
Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of the famous oceanographer, showed
members of Congress video of his dive through "swirls of this orange, toxic soup" that he described as "one of the most horrible things I've ever seen underwater."

The Obama administration, while at long last
officially confirming the presence of some underwater oil, is still not
exactly going out of its way to contradict BP, either. At a press
briefing yesterday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen insisted that, rather
than plume, "a cloud is a better term."

Joye dismissed the distinction between clouds and plumes as "semantics."

In her presentation,
she pointed out that the deepwater oxygen depletion caused by the plume
could well be a much longer lasting problem than oxygen depletion close
to the surface, which can be replenished by photosynthesis and fast
currents. Deepwater "dead zones" could last for years -- "likely

And Joye called on NOAA to get more resources out onto the gulf to measure subsea oil. "I think they need dozens of ships."

But more than anything, she said, what scientists need to know is precisely how much oil and gas has leaked. Neither BP nor the Obama administration have been forthcoming on that front. Joye wrote:

It is virtually impossible to understand or quantify the
ecological consequences of the BP blowout on the Gulf of Mexico
ecosystem without knowing how much oil and gas has leaked from the wellhead.
These numbers need to be estimated and corroborated independently based
on available observational data. Unfortunately, the leak rate was not
quantified robustly during the first month of the spill (at least that
information has not been made publically available). Unless we know how
much oil is leaking from the wellhead, we cannot gauge the full extent
of the ecological consequences in deepwater or surface water
environments. For example, how much deepwater water column oxygen
consumption will be fueled by this influx of oil and gas? Which water
column microbial communities will be stimulated by oil and gas? What is
the time scale of this response? How will surface water microbial
communities respond to surface oil and gas inputs? Potential fishery,
marine mammal, and wildlife consequences of the BP blowout cannot be
properly predicted until we know the magnitude of the disaster. To put
it bluntly, the scientific community is hamstrung until we know
precisely how much oil and gas has leaked and is leaking from the

Or, as she put it to HuffPost: "We need to get that number!"

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