On August 4, the NOAA — which has not exactly covered itself in glory as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill debacle has unfolded — put out an unexpectedly upbeat report that was widely interpreted as celebrating the end of the clean-up phase of the oil spill. According to the report:
…almost three-fourths of the crude that leaked has disappeared or soon will be eaten by bacteria. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has said at least half of the oil released is now “completely gone.”
Chemist Dana Wetzel said the administration’s conclusion felt like the “closing credits of a movie.”
“It’s like they were saying ‘the end,’” Wetzel, program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, said in an interview last week. “I’d say we have just gotten through setting up the plot.”
Carol Browner, Obama’s top environmental adviser, added her own celebratory rhetoric to that:
Mother Nature did some nice work for us in terms of evaporation and dissolution of the oil in the water…
The NOAA report was greeted with widespread skepticism. This week has brought two pieces of news that seem to amply justify the skepticism.
On Tuesday, we learned that scientists from the University of Georgia had strongly questioned the NOAA’s conclusions:
A group of scientists says as much as 79 percent of BP Plc’s leaked oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico, challenging an Obama administration assessment that the crude is largely gone or rapidly disappearing.
Most of the oil that leaked from BP’s Macondo well from April 20 to July 15 is still beneath the water’s surface, five scientists including Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens, concluded in a memo made public yesterday. The researchers say they drew upon the U.S. government’s study while reaching different conclusions.
Charles Hopkinson, a University of Georgia marine scientist and one of the five researchers, said plumes of oil dispersed underwater remain a danger.
“One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless,” he said in a statement released yesterday. “The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade. We are still far from a complete understanding of what its impacts are.”
The University of Georgia scientists said in so many words that the NOAA’s analysis didn’t really support the conclusions they drew (and trumpeted to the public).
The same day University of South Florida scientists also reported disturbing news:
Separately, a study released by University of South Florida scientists said experiments in the northeastern Gulf where so-called plumes or barely visible clouds of oil had been found earlier had turned up oil in sediments of an underwater canyon. The oil was at levels toxic to critical marine organisms.
Oil droplets were found in the sediments of the DeSoto Canyon, where nutrient-rich waters support spawning grounds of important fish species on the West Florida Shelf, this report said.
In response to both developments, the NOAA defended its analysis and pretended that its director had never put a rosy, optimistic spin on the findings:
In a response to the University of Georgia report, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spokesman said the August 2 government calculation was based “on direct measurements whenever possible and the best available scientific estimates where direct measurements were not possible.”
“Additionally, the government and independent scientists involved in the Oil Budget have been clear that oil and its remnants left in the water represent a potential threat, which is why we continue to rigorously monitor, test and assess short- and long-term ramifications,” NOAA Communications Director Justin Kenney said in a statement.
Thn, yesterday, the respected Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts published the results of a major study in the journal Science:
A 22-mile-long invisible mist of oil is meandering far below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, where it will probably loiter for months or more, scientists reported Thursday in the first conclusive evidence of an underwater plume from the BP spill.
The most worrisome part is the slow pace at which the oil is breaking down in the cold, 40-degree water, making it a long-lasting but unseen threat to vulnerable marine life, experts said.
Earlier this month, top federal officials declared the oil in the spill was mostly “gone,” and it is gone in the sense you can’t see it. But the chemical ingredients of the oil persist more than a half-mile beneath the surface, researchers found.
And the oil is degrading at one-tenth the pace at which it breaks down at the surface. That means “the plumes could stick around for quite a while,” said study co-author Ben Van Mooy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, which led the research published online in the journal Science.
Monty Graham, a scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama who was not involved in the study, said: “We absolutely should be concerned that this material is drifting around for who knows how long. They say months in the (research) paper, but more likely we’ll be able to track this stuff for years.”
At this point, there seems little doubt that the NOAA’s August 4 report was seriously misleading. The kindest statement that can be made about Jane Lubchenco’s upbeat pronouncements is that she made statements that are not substantiated by the facts.
The irony is that when University of South Florida researchers first announced the existence of underwater plumes in May, this is the reaction they got from the NOAA:
When University of South Florida researchers stood before television cameras and the world in May to announce they had found evidence of vast plumes of invisible undersea oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the dean of the College of Marine Science didn’t get kudos from federal officials.
Instead, Hogarth said, he got grief from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“They were concerned about the data and wanted to know if we were sure of what we were saying,” Hogarth said this morning. “They felt we were making statements that were not substantiated.”