Scientists on Federal Expedition Fear Oil is Settling on Gulf Floor

The federal government is concerned that oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill may be settling on the ocean floor, causing environmental damage where it’s hardest to see. Scientists who finished a government-sponsored research expedition Thursday reported finding a small area of dead and dying corals covered with an unknown brown material on the bottom of the Gulf, about seven miles from where a BP PLC well gushed millions of barrels of oil into the water this year. The environmental damage likely resulted from the BP spill, said Charles Fisher, a biologist at Penn State University and the chief scientist on the trip, in a statement Friday. “The circumstantial evidence is extremely strong and compelling, because we have never seen anything like this,” said Mr. Fisher, who, with other scientists, worked on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship. NOAA and other federal officials said the researchers did not find such damage at most sites they studied. Earlier this year, another group of researchers reported finding what they said appeared to be oil in sediment along the Gulf floor at various spots as far as 40 miles from the BP well. It’s not yet clear whether the researchers have found oil, or if they did, whether that oil is from the BP well, rather than from a natural oil seep, for example. “The real issue is, can we make the causal link?” said Steve Murawski, chief science adviser for NOAA’s fisheries unit and one of the officials working to assess the spill’s environmental damage. “I’m really interested to see what the brown stuff is.” NOAA is coordinating studies that collectively have taken samples of sediment at more than 450 spots on the Gulf floor, some as far as 180 miles from the well. But tests analyzing the content of the samples won’t be back for weeks or months, he said. Some other research trips that have studied coral since the spill “didn’t see a whole lot” of evidence suggesting oil, Mr. Murawski said. But, he said, the damaged coral reported by Mr. Fisher and his team was close to the BP well, and “you would expect to see this kind of effect” at the site. Final tests on the material researchers found in the sediment earlier this year aren’t back yet. And tests on the substance found in recent days around the coral haven’t yet begun. Mr. Fisher, the Penn State scientist, said that even if test results didn’t show evidence of BP oil at the site of the damaged coral, the oil spill still might be to blame, because “a plume of toxic dispersant or oil blowing through this community could have caused damage that resulted in the slow death of the corals without leaving any trace on the sea floor near the corals.” Critics have accused the administration of underplaying the amount of environmental damage caused by the spill. In August, the government said that 75% of the more than four million barrels of oil released by the spill had been cleaned up or broken down. Mr. Murawski said there were several ways the oil may have found its way to the sea floor. One is that oil broken up by chemical dispersants fell to the sea floor as part of larger particles called “marine snow.” Another possibility, he said, is that some ofthe spilled oil became attached to heavy fluid that was used in drilling the BP well. ((05 NOV 2010))















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