Test results are in for oil material found in Pensacola Bay late last month, and the numbers are frightening.
A lab experienced in testing petroleum products determined that the oil’s toxicity levels are sky-high.
“In its natural state, the numbers are off the chart,” said Heather Reed, the environmental expert for the City of Gulf Breeze who made the discovery. “It’s extremely toxic to human health.”
Lab workers had to dilute the sample 20 times just to get a reading. Reed said samples are usually diluted only once.
“The oil is very well preserved,” Reed added. “It smells very strong when pulled out of the water. It made me nauseated.” Reed in late September discovered a significant amount of oil buried in submerged sediment near Fort McRae in Escambia County while conducting independent research.
“The oil was in about 3 feet of water and was buried pretty deep in the sediment,” Reed recalled. “The mats where between 6 inches and a foot in diameter, but some were more than 2 feet in diameter. I kept digging and finding more and more.
“Finding this submerged oil is very alarming to me because it’s in such large mats,” Reed explained. “I believe it came into (the bay) in June with the initial impacts.”
Reed on Sept. 30 revisited the site and another near Barrancas Beach with BP and Coast Guard officials to inform responders of her discovery. She also discovered oil present at Johnson Beach, Fort Pickens and Orange Beach through research she conducted in September.
The topography near Fort McRae helped preserve the submerged oil. Because the area is a secluded cove, very little water flows through it – resulting in low oxygen levels.
“(The oil) is in an anaerobic environment, so there is not a lot of bacteria to break it down,” Reed explained.
Reed said that similar samples that might possibly remain submerged in the Gulf of Mexico could be extremely damaging to the marine ecosystem.
“I am concerned about upwelling events,” Reed said. “Strong currents draw up nutrient rich water and sediment from the sea floor that nourishes plankton and other organisms that are the foundation of the marine food chain.
“If an upwelling event brings up any oil material with these toxicity levels, it could be harmful to any animals near the upwelling plume.”
Reed is unsure of the effects of the oil on the water quality near Fort McRae.
“The surface area is very large, and it gets pretty deep, so there could be a lot of dilution,” she said. “Because it sank and is submerged, it will stay there.
“I would not recommend going into the water.”
She explained that the effects near the beach would be different because of more aeration.
Though no oil has been reported on Gulf Breeze shores or in local bayous, those areas could be at risk.
“We don’t have any barriers, the Coastwatchers aren’t patrolling anymore, and there has been no communication to the city of this oil entering the bay,” Reed said.
If oil entered any of the Gulf Breeze bayous, Reed explained that it would sink and become submerged just as it had near Fort McRae.
“It would definitely sink and be preserved,” Reed said. “And it would be very difficult to find.”