Much work remains on tracking spilled Gulf oil, NOAA chief says

  • Article by: RENEE SCHOOF , McClatchy News Service
  • Updated: September 15, 2010 - 7:59 PM

Recent reports of oil on the sea floor will be checked out in an investigation that will last "as long as it takes."

WASHINGTON - More than a week after a second university research cruise found oil on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday that teams of academic and federal scientists would make an aggressive effort to search for oil "from the surface to the sea floor."

The remarks by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco stand in contrast to the rosy report the government issued shortly after the spill was capped.

In early August, Lubchenco said that the vast majority of the oil had evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered at the wellhead or dispersed so that it could degrade naturally. She defended that estimate on Wednesday at a news conference in Kenner, La., saying that even more oil had degraded since then, but she stressed that more scientific work needs to be done.

Lubchenco promised that scientists would do "everything it takes for as long as it takes" to find the oil and restore habitat. She also said that "we really do need the best scientists in the country" to account for the oil, learn what its impact would be on marine life and guide actions to restore the region.

Recent findings of oil on the bottom were important, and looking for oil in the sediment would be a key part of future research cruises, Lubchenco said.

University of Georgia marine sciences Prof. Samantha Joye reported on her Gulf Oil Blog on Sept. 6 that her research team on the vessel Oceanus had taken sediment samples that showed fresh oil that was clearly not from natural seeps. In at least one sample, the oil was about two inches thick.

A University of South Florida research cruise in August was the first to find oil on the sediment of the Gulf floor.

Joye's findings "confirm what we initially suggested, which was that there's oil on the sediment and it's widely distributed to the northeast of the wellhead," said David Hollander, a University of South Florida chemical oceanographer who was the lead scientist.

The area is in a dead spot where there are minimal currents, and so sediments tend to settle, Hollander said. It's also one of the areas where the scientists earlier found oil plumes.

A major flaw in NOAA's August account of what happened to the oil was that it didn't deal with what might have settled to the bottom, he said.

Hollander said one of the intriguing things about the August findings was that the oil was on the edge of the continental shelf. The area is near the underwater DeSoto Canyon, which serves as a ramp, with water running up it into the shallower water of the continental shelf.

"But now these waters may not only carry nutrients but they may carry all this stuff too," Hollander said.

Hollander's team took water samples and fed them to marine plankton in experiments aboard the research vessel in August. Even in greatly diluted form, the oil in the water had a toxic effect, meaning reduced plankton available at the bottom of the food chain, Hollander said.

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