Oilmania Turns Scientists into Rock Stars

USF oceanographer David Hollander
USF oceanographer David Hollander
TAMPA (2010-7-27) -

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

A research vessel based in St. Petersburg, the Weatherbird II, had detected vast plumes of oil far beneath the surface.

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.

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."

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.

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

On Thursday, it will be 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.

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," he said.

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.

That led to a call early on from BP.

"Even BP called early in the game about the Weatherbird, (trying) to get the vessels they could get lined up," Hogarth said. "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. Later, they raised that estimate to about 200,000 gallons.

But Ian MacDonald 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.

Another question was, where would currents carry the oil?

Just one week after the spill, USF oceanographer Robert Weisberg sounded the alarm about the Loop Current.

“The bad news is, the longer the oil is out there, and the more the well leaks, the larger the likelihood oil may get entrained in the loop current,” Weisberg said at a later press conference.

Finally, there were the questions surrounding BP's unprecedented reliance upon chemical dispersants. BP used dipsersants 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."

And now, 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.

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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