Gulf Oil Disaster Lingers On Sea Bottom

“As you get closer [to the well head] the damage is acute. In the area that was heavily oiled there was very widespread mortality of the bottom fauna."

01-24-2011 // Bob Serata

BP wants you to believe it’s gone. Agencies of the federal government want you to believe it’s gone. Oil industry-funded “scholars” want you to believe it’s gone. Even some reputable scientists want you to believe it’s gone.

Problem is, it’s not gone.

A December 30, 2010 an Associated Press reporter from East Grand Terre Island, La. wrote: “There is so much oil under the sand, mud and oyster shells that tar balls may be washing up for months, if not years.”

On January 4, 2011, WKRG, the CBS affiliate covering the Mobile, Ala. to Pensacola, Fla. area reported: “In Gulf Shores, the deep clean is back underway with heavy machinery sifting sand, getting the oil out of the beaches. But as more tar balls continue to wash up the concern shifts to the oil that is still in the water. The tar balls that are washing up now and will continue to wash up are from oil that is still offshore and what's out there will eventually end up on the beach.”

A January 5, 2011 report from WSDU, New Orleans, said, “Oil is beginning to wash ashore at Grand Isle. The mayor's office said tar balls are coming ashore on Elmer's Island and sand dollar-sized patches of oil are washing up in Grand Isle. The environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade said it was the worst instance of oil contamination since the BP oil spill.”

So why is finding BP’s missing oil such a mystery to the feds? It’s not like they’re trying to locate bin Laden. This stuff is still washing ashore with relentless regularity and has already pooled under a couple feet of porous sand along Gulf beaches in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

There’s also a lot of BP oil sitting on the floor of the Gulf.

There’s also a lot of BP oil sitting on the floor of the Gulf.

“We made two dives at a site about 10 miles to the north of the well head where we did see oil and we sampled the bottom with a multicore at a variety of stations,” said Dr. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer of deep-ocean extreme communities at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

MacDonald is a co-PI (principal investigator) on a study of microbes at sea floor brine seeps. The research team had booked Alvin, the deep sea submersible operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, for a series of November dives to the bottom of the Gulf. After the Gulf oil disaster, dives were added to the existing itinerary to revisit sites where oil had been found previously and to additional exploratory sites.

MacDonald made six dives in Alvin. “You could see oil. You could see stringers of oil even 10 miles away [from the Macondo well head] on the bottom,” he said. “We had a little camera with a UV lamp that was held in Alvin’s manipulator arm. When the camera and UV lamp were held close to the bottom and with all of the regular lights turned off, the bottom just lit up with flakes and specks of oil about the size of a postage stamp. Some flakes were bigger and some were smaller,” MacDonald said.

Samples were taken so the oil could be “fingerprinted” to determine if it came from BP’s Macondo well. Results are not in yet but MacDonald is pretty certain the oil is from BP’s broken well.

“The oil two and a half miles from the well head comes from the Macondo well,” he said. “It’s not a natural seep. There’s a bit more ambiguity when you get to a site like MC118 [a previously visited and sampled site] which is 10 miles away. It’s a natural seep but most of what is coming out of it is gas not oil. Oil has come out of it but it’s not nearly as copious a natural seep as other ones in the Gulf. It’s more gassy,” MacDonald said.

“But there was a hell of a lot of oil there and there was also damage to the sea fans and some of the other fauna. We saw red crabs that appeared to have been affected by oil,” he added.

From Alvin’s porthole, MacDonald saw four or five dead gorgonians, commonly called sea fans. But what struck him was the behavior of some brittle stars, which live commensally on live sea fans.

“There were several instances of brittle stars hanging on to dead gorgonian skeletons,” said MacDonald. “The brittle star still hanging on to the dead corals was a poignant indicator to me that this was a recent event. Because you never see these brittle stars kind of wandering around. They want to be on living sea fans,” he noted.

MacDonald summed up his recent Gulf voyage, “What we’re showing is that there is oil on the bottom that came out of the Macondo well and that landing on the bottom appeared to take some time, weeks after the initial discharge. And this oil is associated with damage to the permanent fauna. Damage that didn’t occur as a result of normal seepage.

“As you get closer [to the well head] the damage is acute. In the area that was heavily oiled there was very widespread mortality of the bottom fauna. So how does NRDA [Natural Resource Damage Assessment] address that? Let’s say there’s a three mile radius around the well head where the fauna and the benthic animals the animals living in the bottom mud have been severely impacted by the oil. What does the NRDA process do about that? How do they assess that? And how do they make BP restore that? Nobody has a clue how to restore that!” MacDonald said.

He summarized: “They’re basically saying, ‘well we’ll kind of ignore that and hope that it gets better.’ For most of the public that’s probably OK. I mean there’s not any beachfront property there. But as scientists and stewards of the ecology I think we have to say ‘wait a minute, this is an impact zone. At least you need to monitor it going forward to know does it recover and what happens to it a year from now and ten years from now and how does that compare to unoiled areas?’”

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