The Oil Spill Scientists Behind the Headlines

USF Dean Bill Hogarth steps up to the microphone during a press conference with oceanographers in June
TAMPA (2010-07-29) -

It's been 100 days since the Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank to the bottom of the Gulf. Since then, an unlikely group has taken center stage - ocean researchers.

Two weeks after the oil started gushing, a dozen oceanographers gingerly approached a mound of microphones outside the USF College of Marine Science.

Their message: the Gulf oil spill is a lot worse than we thought. And they said BP isn't telling the whole truth.

A research vessel based in St. Petersburg, the Weatherbird II, detected vast plumes of oil far beneath the surface. USF oceanographer David Hollander explained the findings to the assembled reporters.

"You can get particles so small that you can't see," Hollander said. "But if you have a filter that's fine enough, you can trap them. And that's what we did."

Earlier that week, BP CEO Tony Hayward publicly disputed what these scientists had found. He said the oil is on the surface, and "there aren't any plumes."

Hayward's statement led to this rare press conference by these academicians, who are normally cloistered in some anonymous research lab. Now, they were in a public battle with BP. Hollander even had trouble getting BP to release a sample from the well.

"I tried to get a piece of the oil from a BP representative and it was met with resistance," he said. "He barked severely"

"Oilmania," as one researcher dubbed the phenomenon, was in full bloom.

On April 20, Bill Hogarth learned about the Deepwater Horizon explosion while he was watching television. But the Dean of USF's College of Marine Science had little idea of how it would change his life.

"I didn't pay as much attention to it as I probably should have, to be honest with you, because it wasn't as big it appeared," Hogarth said. "I probably downplayed it at the time - they'll clean it, they'll stop it pretty quick."

Once he realized the scale of the disaster, he knew it put USF in a unique position - it was one of the few places that had ocean-going research vessels ready to go.

"Even BP called early in the game about the Weatherbird and I guess get the vessels they could get lined up, lined up," Hogarth said. "We didn't participate in that because we knew we had so many universities that would probably want to be involved that we wanted to keep our vessels free for the state of Florida and for the research that needed to be done."

That research centered on three questions. One, just how much oil was leaking from the well?

At first, BP pegged it at roughly 42,000 gallons a day. A week later, the company raised that to about 200,000 gallons a day.

But Ian MacDonald still wasn't convinced. The Florida State University oceanographer was one of the first researchers to publicly question BP's estimates.

"I cannot understand why BP persists in making these claims on television that are so patently false and so easily disproved," MacDonald said. "It's absolutely shocking."

A month later, a senior BP executive told Congress that the spill could be as high as 2.5 million gallons a day - 10 times earlier estimates.

Another question was, just where would currents carry the oil?

Just one week after the spill, USF oceanographer Robert Weisberg sounded the alarm about the Loop Current. He said if oil became caught up in the oddly-shaped current, it could siphon the toxins toward the Florida Keys and into the North Atlantic.

"I'm more concerned with the Florida Straits that I am with the West Florida beaches right now," Weisberg said at the time. "However, if enough oil gets into shallow enough water along the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico and stays there, then that oil with that water could eventually flow to here."

Finally, there were the questions surrounding BP's unprecedented reliance upon chemical dispersants. BP used dpsersants to reduce the amount of oil floating to the surface. But USF professor Edward Van Vleet said in May the company was merely shifting the problem away from human eyes, where it could poison marine life underwater.

"It's still just as toxic as the oil was at the surface," Van Vleet said, "but now that it's dispersed down into the water, it just becomes available to different organisms instead of organisms when it's at the surface that either feed at the surface or dive through the surface, such as birds or submarine mammals."

And now, with BP seemingly on the verge of capping the spill, these same researchers say we have to remain vigilant. There's still million of gallons of crude swirling in the Gulf.

"What does this mean for the long-term, for your food chain and the long-term fisheries? asked Hogarth. "I think it's going to be a real battle to keep this in the forefront and to keep money available so you can can do the long-term monitoring, so you don't go back into managing the fisheries thinking that everything's going to be OK."

Hogarth says it will take $100 million to fully study the effects of the oil spill. So far, BP has agreed to fund one-tenth of their request.

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