USF research included in TV special on Gulf spill


While the Deepwater Horizon oil leak has been plugged and media attention has drifted elsewhere, the story of its impact on the Gulf is far from over, according to two National Geographic Channel specials debuting Tuesday night.

More than 4 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf and another 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant was used to break it up.

Most of the oil and dispersant are still below the surface and have the potential to cause long-term damage the eco-system, according to University of South Florida researcher John Paul who is included in a documentary debuting Tuesday night in the National Geographic Channel.

“Explorer: Can the Gulf Survive?” at 10 p.m. recounts the explosion on British Petroleum-owned oil platform and the events that followed including efforts by scientists to track the oil flow and study its effect on the environment.

Also debuting Tuesday on National Geographic is “After the Spill: The Last Catch,” at 9 p.m. which focuses on how people in the fishing town of Venice, La., are struggling in the aftermath.

“We just don’t know the final results will be,” says Paul, a marine microbiologist who along with13 other researchers went on a 10-day research mission Aug. 6 in the Gulf of Mexico in August.

It was funded by USF’s Research Foundation and led by chemical oceanographer David Hollander, Paul, biological oceanographer Kendra Daly and geological oceanographer David Naar.

They discovered plumes of dispersed oil at the bottom of an undersea canyon about 40 miles off the Florida Panhandle.

It was found to be toxic to microscopic sea organisms, causing mutations to their DNA.

If this plankton at the base of the marine food chain is contaminated, it could affect the whole ecosystem of the Gulf.

“I call these canaries in the coal mine as they are the first to feel the effects,” Paul says. “The oil is out of sight as far as the surface is concerned and there are no tar balls on the beaches and the birds are not getting coated in oil but the story isn’t over.”

“The problem with mutant DNA is that it can be passed on and we don’t how this will affect fish or other marine life,” he says, adding that the effects could last for decades.

Tonight’s documentary chronicles the efforts of the Coast Guard and command center team leading the cleanup efforts during the first two months. Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator, and Mike Utsler, BP’s incident commander, are interviewed.

Cameras track the spill cleanup effort from sea, land and air, including the burning of oil on the surface and the spraying of dispersant while a BP cutter sucks up more than a thousand barrels of oil a day.

The National Geographic specials coincide with the October issue of National Geographic Magazine, which includes a comprehensive overview of the spill; observations from oceanographer Sylvia Earle; and a map that shows the extent of oil drilling in the Gulf (more than 3,700 platforms and a pipeline system on the ocean floor).

Paul says further research is needed in the coming months and years to monitor what happens to the Gulf’s eco-system.

USF, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the state of Florida Oil Spill Academic Task Force are planning an oil spill research conference, Feb. 9-11, 2011, at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront that will bring together representatives from academia, government and the private sector.

Meanwhile, the temporary suspension on deepwater drilling in the Gulf is scheduled to expire Nov. 30, and the U.S. Senate is expected to take up off-shore regulatory legislation this fall.

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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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