Federal agency parrots BP’s CEO in denying existence of submerged ‘oil plumes’ in Gulf
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proudly trumpets that it is “the nation’s leading scientific resource for oil spills” and brags on its website that “NOAA has been on the scene of the BP spill from the start, providing coordinated scientific weather and biological response services to federal, state and local organizations.”
But the NOAA’s current chief Jane Lubchenco, an otherwise respected environmental scientist, is playing holdout on one critical aspect of the widening BP oil crisis. She refuses to acknowledge that the spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico may carry an equal or greater risk to underwater life caused by the spread of sub-surface “oil plumes.”
The fact that Lubchenco’s skepticism echoes the view expressed three days ago by BP chief exec Tony “I Want My Life Back” Hayward makes her reticence on the important issue all the more disconcerting.
BP boss Tony Hayward: “No evidence” of sub-sea oil plumes
On Sunday past, while he toured the Louisiana coastal marshlands that have been turned into a “staging area” for BP’s response teams (but no cameras, please, until the CEO gets here), Hayward refuted the existence of oil plumes absolutely and said that the company’s “cleanup operation” would concentrate exclusively upon surface slicks.
Claiming that BP had done its own testing and found “no evidence” of sub-sea plumes of oil, Hayward told the media, including the New York Times, that “oil’s natural tendency is to rise to the surface, and any oil found underwater was in the process of working its way up.” And according to Hayward:
“The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.”
Scientists find oil plumes at depths exceeding 5,000 feet below surface
That denial flies in the face of reports from several scientists at U.S. universities and research centres that there are plumes of oil at depths exceeding 5,000 feet which have emanated from the still ruptured and leaking Deepwater Horizon pipeline on the ocean floor.
University scientists at South Florida, Georgia and Southern Mississippi made these findings based upon video imaging and analysis of water samples taken from the Gulf over the past weeks. They also vouch for the accuracy of their conclusions because the observations and findings at each university facility were reached independently.
One of those researchers is James Cowan of Louisiana State University (LSU) who told the New York Times earlier this week that “there’s been enough evidence from enough different sources” to confirm the existence of the sub-surface phenomenon. Last week Cowan reported one such plume of oil at a distance of 80 kilometres from the BP well site and said it reached to at least 400 feet below the surface. Scientists at South Florida university say that a 22-mile long and six mile wide plume has been observed at more than a thousand feet below the surface.
But despite Tony Hayward’s flat-out rejection of the possibility of plumage (?) below the water’s surface, other respected marine scientists are not backing away (watering down?) their conclusions.
Problem is that oil’s buoyancy, which is the lynch-pin of Hayward’s unequivocal denial of oil plumes below the surface, is lowered by other man-made chemicals, such as, oh, say, for the sake of argument (the next part of this sentence should be read aloud with a burst of barely stifled frustration in the style of Lewis Black)–dispersants such as COREXIT®.
If one visits the website of the dispersant’s manufacturer, NALCO, and we would invite the plume-deniers to avail themselves of a click, a visitor can read for his/herself about the buoyancy-lowering properties of COREXIT® approximately 210,000 gallons of which have been poured into the Gulf waters to date by BP’s “cleanup” effort:
When the COREXIT® dispersants are deployed on the spilled oil, the oil is broken up into tiny bio-degradable droplets that immediately sink below the surface where they continue to disperse and bio-degrade. This quickly removes the spilled oil from surface drift…reducing direct exposure to birds, fish and sea animals in the spill environment. By keeping the oil from adhering to wildlife COREXIT® dispersants effectively protect the environment.
So (glory be) there could actually be some “evidence” to corroborate the otherwise haywire claims by a slew of marine scientists that there is something foul and oily permeating the depths of the Gulf of Mexico as we speak.
And, if nothing else, that would explain why when BP was asked to provide the media with details of its own “testing”–which CEO Hayward relied on to debunk the existence of plumes–they did not respond.
Plumes could harm “one of the largest coral reefs in Gulf”
It would also shed some light on a report in Tuesday’s New York Times that two plumes of sub-surface oil have been recently spotted near an ecologically sensitive deepwater area in the Gulf which Temple University marine biologist (no, sorry, it’s not George Costanza) Erik Cordes describes as “one of the largest coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The underwater reef Cordes refers to is only 20 miles northeast of the Deepwater Horizon site, “one of at least three extensive deepwater reefs lying directly beneath the oil slick in the gulf.”
But as the Times reported yesterday, a report which one might hope would attract the attention of BP officials or even someone above the level of receptionist at NOAA, “it is not the slick that troubles scientists…[but] a more insidious threat: vast plumes of partly dissolved oil apparently spreading in the deep ocean.”
According to Erik Cordes: “The worst-case scenario is that there’s oil coating some of the corals. It would basically suffocate them.”
While researchers are hot on the underwater trail of the plumes, they are uncertain of their composition.
Some are suggesting the plumes are comprised “not pure oil, but most likely a haze of oil droplets, natural gas and the dispersant chemical Corexit, 210,000 gallons of which has been mixed into the jet of oil streaming from the seafloor.”
That lethal cocktail of dispersant and submerged crude oil will prove a deadly combination if they come into contact with coral reef ecosystems. What’s worse, there is a scarcity of scientific research on deepwater coral so that comparatively little is known about the effects of the plume’s chemical components upon marine life at these extreme depths.
That paucity of science knowledge may owe something to the party guys and gals at the recently reconstituted Minerals Management Service (MMS) which in 2007 signed off on allowing deepwater oil drilling of the kind practised by BP and its subcontractor Transocean on its fleet of oil platforms including the doomed Deepwater Horizon.
In giving a “green light” to deepwater oil exploration, at page IV-81 of its report, the MMS made the following remarkable statement about potential environmental risks to sub-sea marine life, including coral reefs, as a result of oil spills:
Oil from surface spills can sometimes penetrate the water column to documented depths of 20 m; however, at these depths, the concentrations of the various chemical components of spilled oil are typically several orders of magnitude lower than those demonstrated to have an effect on marine organisms. Given the water depths of the topographic features, it is unlikely that significant amounts of oil from surface spills would reach the sensitive communities.
The MMS report made no mention of the ecological impact of chemical dispersants.
The story of how BP executives refused to be dissuaded from (and were allowed to proceed with) wholesale dissemination of Corexit into the Gulf has yet to be probed in detail. But thus far it is fair to say the company has done its utmost to downplay the deleterious environmental effects of a remedy that many believe is worse than the disease.
As reported in a recent LOON story, when BP Canada president Anne Drinkwater appeared before a Canadian parliamentary committee on May 13th, 2010 and gave a “prepared” outline of the company’s response to the Gulf crisis, she actually referred to ““attacking the area with coast guard approved biodegradable dispersants.”
Her choice of words was meant to convey approval from the U.S. government despite expressed opposition even in mid-May to the widespread use of dispersants and a subsequent disclaimer on May 24th from Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the effect that using Corexit was the lesser of two environmental evils and that, in Jackson’s own words, “in all of this, it is critical to remember that the Number One enemy is the oil.”
“Known toxic effects to coral” of chemical oil dispersants
Ironically, it was a scientist with the NOAA’s national marine sanctuaries program, Billy D. Causey, who confirmed to the New York Times yesterday that “the application of dispersants is already highly discouraged in areas like the Florida Keys because of their known toxic effects to coral.”
But don’t hold your breath (if you happen to be below the surface) waiting for BP or its pals at NALCO to give you negative soundbites about their chosen brand, COREXIT®. A video posted on the Illinois-based chemical producer’s website (see our LOON-O-VISION sidebar) never mentions any of the stuff its critics are on about.
Dr Causey added that “we consider the dispersed oil more harmful than a sheen passing over the reef.”
Another irony is that the NOAA’s own running score on the rising marine animal death toll in the Gulf region undermines its chief’s non-committal posture on the oil plume danger. From April 30th to May 30, 2010, the most recent data on the NOAA’s website points to an abnormally high number of “stranded” sea turtles and dead dolphins, yet only a few showing external signs of oil contamination:
“The 253 turtles verified in the spill area include 12 turtles collected alive with visible external evidence of oil and one dead stranded turtle with visible external evidence of oil. All others have not had visible evidence of external oil. A total of 228 turtles stranded dead. A total of 15 stranded alive. Three of those subsequently died and one of the live stranded turtles –caught in marine debris — was disentangled and released. There are 21 turtles in rehabilitation. Turtle strandings during this time period have been higher in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama than in previous years for this same time period. This may be due in part to increased detection and reporting, but this does not fully account for the increase….There have been 29 dead dolphins verified within the designated spill area. So far, one of the 29 dolphins had evidence of external oil. Because it was found on an oiled beach, we are unable at this time to determine whether the animal was covered in oil prior to its death or after its death. The other 28 dolphins have had no visible evidence of external oil. Since April 30, the stranding rate for dolphins in Louisiana has been higher than the historic numbers for the same time period in previous years…Strandings are defined as dead or debilitated animals that wash ashore.”