Louisiana and Texas scientists gathered on the Tulane University campus Thursday to comment on a proposed sampling plan aimed at answering lingering questions about how much oil and dispersant remains in the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent shoreline from the BP Macondo blowout.
“This is a plan to keep working until we’re satisfied we know where the oil is and, in particular, anything we can do about it,” said Steve Murawski, chief science adviser for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who explained the plan to participants.
Conflicting government and scientific reports, Murawski said, have resulted in public confusion about what components of the oil or dispersants are still in the water and how long they will last, and over statements that the oils has changed forms through dilution or diffusion, but has not completely disappeared.
“Unless we can demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that we looked in pretty much every place it could be, then there will always be more questions,” he said. “From the foot of the beach where the tide goes back and forth to around the well site and deeper.”
Thursday’s meeting in the Rogers Memorial Chapel at Tulane University was the last of three by Unified Command officials, including representatives of several federal agencies and BP and about 50 scientists. On Tuesday, officials met with Florida scientists at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, and on Wednesday, with scientists from Alabama and Mississippi at the Mississippi State University Extension Center in Biloxi.
The comprehensive search for oil and dispersant was proposed by National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen on Aug. 13, when he said he’d try to unify all existing and future research efforts.
The effort follows repeated questions about how much oil or its breakdown products from the well accident remains in tiny droplets or other forms contained in underwater plumes far from the wellhead, in sediment on the ocean floor, on the surface or along the shoreline, after federal officials released an initial accounting that seemed to conclude that only 26 percent of the oil still existed.
Allen directed Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator, to develop a plan that would:
Monitor and assess the distribution of oil remaining in the water column or in bottom sediments.
Evaluate the distribution of “indicators of break-down products” of dispersants used in the oil spill response, meaning any chemical compounds remaining when the dispersants weather and age.
Identify any additional response requirements that may be needed to address subsurface oil.
A handout that was to be provided to the scientists attending Thursday’s meeting, which was closed to the public, suggested that Unified Command officials wanted to hear from the scientists on how to gather samples to answer several questions:
Where are the oil and dispersants now, and in what concentrations?
Are concentrations present that could pose a hazard to human health?
How quickly are the oil and dispersants degrading or dispersing, and where are their breakdown products?
Where are there opportunities to recover oil from the environment?
Allen’s proposal calls for including academic and private scientific institutional partners and state agencies in planning and executing the new oil and dispersant monitoring plan. He also said officials should use scientific cruises and other assets that had already been deployed by the federal government or by private organizations and universities, and incorporate data that already had been collected into the studies.
That’s a positive step, said Michael Blum, an assistant professor in Tulane’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology who is studying how coastal marsh plants and the microbes that live in and around them respond to the spill.
“One of the questions that has always come up is what is the role of the academic community, how are we supporting the response effort, how are we responding to the long-term monitoring needs,” Blum said after the meeting. “There’s been a lot of confusion about what we could actually do. In many respects a lot of folks feel like they’re on the periphery of what’s going on.”
The plan calls for communicating information that’s gathered as part of the oil and dispersant search on a regular basis to both the scientific community and the public, and to coordinate the new studies with other monitoring strategies already under way, such as surveys of seafood conducted to assure its safety.
That’s another positive, Blum said, if federal officials follow through on their promise.
“There’s a general perception that there’s lot of data that’s not being made available,” he said, adding that he believes the problem stems in part from the huge amount of data that has been gathered too quickly for the Unified Command to deal with it.
“It’s pretty clear that there’s a bit of unawareness of the amount of data, its availability and how to use it,” he said. “So clearly, we need to do more than simply lay the data out there. We need more of a mechanism to interact with the scientists.”
Murawski said the information also will be made available to the general public, which also will have an opportunity to comment on the sampling plan when it is released in a few days.
“If the public perceives that there are gaps in the plan, in terms of spatial coverage or the parameters we’re looking at, we’re going to speak to that kind of input” in the plan’s final version, Murawski said.
A number of scientists urged more emphasis on long-term study of the effects of the oil and dispersant on all areas of the Gulf, a concern that mirrors similar questions raised by the general public, Murawski said.
“People are very concerned about how we understand the long-term impacts of that oil,” he said.. “They want to see that we have enough intellectual horsepower, enough funding to understand those big societal questions, as well.”
He said government and industry officials hope the data from the study also will help guide future oil spill responses.
“People are asking, because of the events of today (the explosion and fire on Marine Energy’s Vermilion 380 platform), how much better prepared are we now for responding to a big oil spill like this in deep water,” Murawski said. “What have we (learned) about dispersants, is that an efficacious technology. What have we learned about our ability to track oil, to be geared up in a response, and I think the scientific community wants to help in those lessons learned.”