Miami Dade County Community Forum

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Miami Herald on Gulf Oil Spill: Sea life likely disrupted for years

Here is an excerpt from the Miami Herald article Sunday by Rene Schoof:

"It's probably going to be one of the worst disasters we've ever seen," said Paul Montagna, a professor of ecology at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

"Instead of creating a typical spill, where the oil goes to the surface and you can scoop it up, this stuff has been distributed throughout the water column, and that means everything, absolutely everything, is being affected," he said.

Further complicating the toxic effects of the oil, the chemical dispersants - used as never before a mile below the surface - have changed the crude in ways that will keep it from breaking down.

The dispersants have modified the oil, keeping it in a form that's "much gooier and much oilier, and that has a lot of us worried, because it means the stuff is not going to degrade very easily," said James H. Cowan Jr., a professor of biological oceanography at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Because of the high pressure deep underwater, it's harder for dispersants to break up the oil, he said.

"A lot of us suspect that we may be dealing with this for decades," Cowan said.

BP's use of the dispersants also is likely to keep the damage hidden.

Larry Crowder, a professor of marine biology at Duke University, said the dispersant, Corexit, had kept much of the oil off the beaches, making it "harder to get 'Film at 11' about the effects." Many species that are killed by the oil in the water will die and sink out of sight.

"That may be the preference of the oil companies: to keep the damage out of sight, out of mind," Crowder said.

Scientists said at the seabed, where the gusher has spewed as much as 37 million gallons of crude since April, the world is like a refrigerator with the door shut: about 40 degrees and dark. Bacteria that degrade oil don't work well in those conditions.

"A lot of the technology that worked pretty well in shallow water we're finding - oops - there are some things we didn't know or think about," said Texas A&M's Montagna. "Obviously, there were no contingency plans."

BP's response plan for a spill in the Gulf didn't anticipate oil staying underwater. It said measurements would be made on the surface to calculate the size of the spill.

Layers of oil reach out in all directions under water, LSU's Cowan said, some deep, where they degrade slowly, and others moving toward the surface. One layer is a few hundred feet down in the water and 300 feet thick, he said.

He and his research team have been out checking the reefs with remotely operated vehicles. Most of the oil they've seen is near the shore, he said, "but we now think we're beginning to see some oil on the reef environment in a little deeper water."

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