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Researchers Confirm Subsea Gulf Oil Plumes are from BP Well

Sara Kennedy

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Through a chemical
fingerprinting process, University of South Florida researchers have
definitively linked clouds of underwater oil in the northern Gulf of
Mexico to BP's runaway Deepwater Horizon well - the first direct
scientific link between the subsurface oil clouds commonly known as
"plumes" and the BP oil spill, USF officials said Friday.

Until now, scientists had circumstantial evidence, but lacked that definitive scientific link.

announcement came on the same day that the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration announced that its researchers have confirmed
the existence of the subsea plumes at depths of 3,300 to 4,300 feet
below the surface of the Gulf. NOAA said its detection equipment also
implicated the BP well in the plumes' creation.

Together, the two studies confirm what in the early days of the
spill was denied by BP and viewed skeptically by NOAA's chief - that
much of the crude that gushed from the Deepwater Horizon well stayed
beneath the surface of the water.

"What we have learned completely
changes the idea of what an oil spill is," said chemical oceanographer
David Hollander, one of three USF researchers credited with the matching
samples of oil taken from the water with samples from the BP well. "It
has gone from a two-dimensional disaster to a three-dimensional

The other scientists involved in making the link,
USF said, were biological oceanographer Ernst Peebles and geological
oceanographer David Naar.

The finding is important because oil
that escaped from the mile-deep, blown-out well had been treated with
dispersants, which broke the oil in the water column into tiny droplets,
and therefore did not form an oil slick at the surface, said Richard H.
Pierce, senior scientist and director of the Center for Ecotoxicology
at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory.

"It's more readily taken up and absorbed and ingested by marine animals," he explained.

dispersed oil degrades more quickly over the long-run, in the
short-term, it poses a more toxic threat to marine life, Pierce said.

"So, we've been very concerned, and it is critical USF has verified it," he said.

The full report was not released Friday, but will be available sometime next week, USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere said.

declined to comment on the USF discovery. "We have only seen media
reports, and have not yet seen the report and underlying data," BP
spokesman Phil Cochrane said in an e-mail.

USF scientists found
microscopic droplets of biodegraded oil at varying depths beneath the
Gulf's surface, the university said in a statement.

One layer was 100 feet thick; it was found 45 nautical miles north-northeast of the well site, officials said.

researchers found the plumes after models created by a USF expert in
ocean currents, Robert Weisberg, predicted subsurface oil from the
Deepwater Horizon well would move toward the north-northeast, USF said.

"The clouds were found near the DeSoto Canyon, a critical area that interacts with Florida's spawning grounds," USF said.

NOAA study made similar findings. According to the report, which was
reviewed by 19 scientists known as the Joint Analysis Group, data
collected by five research ships deployed in the Gulf from May 19 to
June 19 showed oil suspended in the water between 1,000 and 1,300 meters
- about 3,280 feet to 4,265 feet.

The NOAA scientists detected
the oil by measuring its fluorescence - many of the droplets are too
small to detect otherwise - and said that that measurement linked it to
the BP well.

The report said the oil had been detected in heaviest
concentrations near the BP well and that its concentrations dropped as
the ships moved away from the well, but that not enough samples had been
taken to determine the full "horizontal extent" of the plumes.

report also said the impact of the oil on sealife had yet to be
determined. Even at low concentrations, the report said, the oil "might
be biologically meaningful" because of the length of time fish and other
organisms would be exposed to it.

The report also said that
scientists had detected lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the water at
depths below 3,280 feet, but that they couldn't determine why the
levels were low with certainty. They said the levels were not so low as
to be fatal to sealife.

Steven Murawski, chief scientist for
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, said the data confirm that the
subsea plumes of oil were the result of the Deepwater Horizon well.

"That's a real smoking gun, as far as we're concerned," he said. "It really is a flow" from the well.

May, when scientists first reported that they had discovered oil
beneath the Gulf's surface and blamed it on the Deepwater Horizon spill,
they were denounced by both BP and NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco.

CEO Tony Hayward denied that such plumes existed and Lubchenco called
the reports "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate."

On the Web

Read the NOAA report


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