Surface of Gulf of Mexico looks better, but millions of gallons of oil remain below


Charter captain Mike Frenette has been wondering whether the news media are living in a parallel universe. The Internet and mainstream media this week are filled with reports that the BP oil disaster is over, that the Gulf is now devoid of the slicks and sheen, and the marshes are no longer being bathed in crude.

That’s not what he and his crew saw at the mouth of the Mississippi River and along the river’s delta this week.

“There was more oil at South Pass Tuesday than I’ve seen since this whole thing started; it was really discouraging,” Frenette said. “I don’t know where everyone else is looking, but if they think there’s no more oil out there, they should take a ride with me.

“I wish this thing was over so I could get back to fishing. But that’s just not the case. We’re a long way from finished with the oil.”

Scientists and oil spill experts agree with Frenette. They say the Gulf might look cleaner on the surface right now, but there is probably hundreds of millions of gallons of BP’s oil in tiny, hard-to-see droplets below the surface. And slicks like the one Frenette saw this week will still be floating to the surface for weeks and months to come.

For months a fleet of research vessels has been tracking clouds of diffused oil particles floating 3,300 to 4,300 feet below the surface, said Steve Murawski, NOAA’s chief scientist for fisheries. The microscopic droplets were formed when the dispersant Corexit was pumped into the geyser of oil and methane that for 84 days rocketed into the Gulf from the failed wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface.

“These are tiny droplets, between 20 and 60 microns, and with the concentrations we’re seeing (4 to 5 parts per million) when you put this in a beaker it looks like clear sea water,” Murawski said. “You can’t see it, but there’s definitely components (of the oil) in the water.”

Those findings run counter to the flurry of sunny news reports that flooded the Internet this week in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Bonnie. As the storm approached, officials braced for the long-feared worst-case scenario: A surge that would lift millions of gallons of crude from the Gulf and drive it deep into interior coastal wetlands, which have been largely untouched by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But when Bonnie fizzled and post-storm search crews looking for oil found little to report, the sigh of relief turned into bubbling optimism that the crisis might be over.

By Tuesday, however, reports of oil impacts began rising again. Frenette and Don Sutton, both captains on “vessels of opportunity” — boats hired to help with the spill response — saw their optimism crushed at the river’s South Pass on Monday.

Frenette said the oil that flowed into and around South Pass was the thickest and largest concentration he had found since the disaster began April 20. Other captains told him, meanwhile, that they had seen long ribbons oil, with a mousse-like consistency, off the coast of Empire.

Sutton said he found lines of floating tar balls that stretched for more than 15 miles Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I followed a line that stretched from South Pass to Southwest Pass probably two to three miles off the shore,” he said. “And that wasn’t all we saw. There were patches of oil in that chocolate mousse stuff, slicks, and patches of grass with oil on them.

“The Gulf might look clear, but we’re still seeing oil coming ashore.”

Doug Rader, chief ocean scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, wasn’t surprised by the deceptive appearance of the Gulf.

“The confusion comes with the word ‘oil’ itself,” he said. “Most people hear ‘oil’ and they think of the dark, gloppy stuff that comes in the can at the automotive store, or from the barrels in Saudi Arabia.

“But oil is composed of many, many more components than the black stuff you see. And when that black stuff is gone, there’s still plenty of those components — many of which are extremely toxic — still in the water.”

Rader, like other marine scientists, is concerned the public will lose interest in the threat posed by the disaster once the surface is clear.

“If you go back and look at the sheer amount of oil dumped — 60,000 barrels a day for 87 days — you get about 220 million gallons,” he said. “Of that, 11 million gallons were burned and 30-some million were collected, meaning about 50 million gallons were eliminated.

“That leaves you about 175 million gallons of oil-based pollution loose in the Gulf. And when it degrades from the thick stuff you can see, that doesn’t mean it’s all gone. There’s still an untold amount of toxins from that oil in the marine environment.”

Other sightings of possible impacts this week included a growing swatch of dead surf clams along the coast from Buras to Empire, and hundreds of starfish inching out of the water and onto the beach at the Chandeleur Island chain.

Ryan Lambert, who runs Cajuns Fishing Adventures in Buras, said he first noticed a small number of the nickel-sized clams washed up on a beach on Day 47 of the disaster. By Wednesday, the dead clams stretched for several miles in a band 10 feet wide.

“That first patch was maybe 6 feet by 10 feet, with maybe hundreds of clams, a lot of them wrapped around big old tar balls,” he said. “Wednesday, there were millions of them.

“I’ve been down here 40 years. I’ve never seen that before.”

The starfish were sighted by crew members working on vessels of opportunity who did not want to be quoted for fear of losing their jobs.

Marine biologists said both events could be the result of low dissolved oxygen levels, a common development in warm, summer months. Or they could be related to the oil.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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