Oil Spill Scientists Made National Headlines

FSU Professor
FSU Professor Ian MacDonald
USF Oceanographer
USF Oceanographer David Hollander
ST. PETERSBURG (2011-7-12) -

This week is the one-year anniversary of the day the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico was finally capped. WUSF takes a look at some of the scientists who made national headlines with their research on the spill.

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, University of South Florida scientists gathered 350 miles to the east in St. Petersburg to plan their response. USF was uniquely positioned in the days after the oil spill - two years earlier, the college purchased an ocean-going research vessel - the Weatherbird.

What they found made national headlines.

USF Professor David Hollander was right in the thick of it.

"During the blowout," says Hollander, "there was the formation of these sub-surface plumes. Very, very toxic compounds that were incorporated into the sub-surface plumes. Benzene, tolulene, ethyl benzene and xylene. These are regarding as highly toxic and carcinogenic."

Then, BP refused to give Hollander and other USF researchers a sample from near the wellhead so they could compare its chemical fingerprint.

Eventually, Hollander got his sample - it matched.

Hollander wasn't the only scientist who butted heads with BP. Ian MacDonald was one of the first people to question what BP and the government were saying about something very basic - how much oil was gushing into the Gulf.

"They said there was a spill rate on the order of 1,000 barrels a day coming out," says MacDonald." "And at that time, I was looking at satellite data - as I do, as part of my research - and we looked at the satellite data, and we can see that there was a spread of oil that was way in excess of what we thought we should be seeing. I at that point was saying there was 26,500 barrels a day - that was my minimum. And they were saying 5,000, and I said, 'Well, I might be wrong'."

BP was taking video of the oil gusher that could answer MacDonald's questions - they just weren't releasing it. And the government wouldn't help.

"Then, we got some very strange answers from the government," he says. "And the government said, 'Well, that video belongs to BP, and it's up to BP whether they should release it or not.' And at that point, well, I just found that infuriating. Here we had a spill of national significance, the livelihood and possibly the health of the people of this region - certainly the health of the ecosystem of this region - was in jeopardy, and we were getting the runaround very clearly."

So MacDonald turned to the media. The media put pressure on politicians, who put pressure on the Obama Administration and BP - who released the live video feed of the gusher.

Turns out, there was more like 50,000 barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf each day - even more than what MacDonald originally feared.

After the gusher was capped, the camera turned away from the scientists. But they say the story of what's happening to the Gulf is just beginning.

Hollander says a lot of the damage took place deep at the bottom of the Gulf.

"With the accumulation of petroleum," says, Hollander, "maybe you could call this a 'dirty blizzard' of materials sinking downward and accumulating on the sediment surface."

And that sediment a mile down in the Gulf has smothered much of the marine life - what Hollander calls a 'toxic bathtub ring.' Other tiny organisms are deformed. There are reports of dead dolphins and turtles washing ashore, and fish with suspicious lesions.

"This could take decades, but I think you'll start to see definitive responses within the ecosystem certainly on the order of five to seven years," says Hollander. "So there's that aspect of the living resource - which is really important - the fish health and safety, as we're seeing with the fish lesions - these are really important questions which need to be addressed, we're not going to be resolved within weeks, but more likely in months, to years."

MacDonald agrees that we're just starting to learn the effects of the spill. But he's learned another lesson about politics.

"Everybody in this region - and probably, everyone in the country - had a deep sympathetic response to seeing all that oil," he says, "seeing those dead birds, to see it go on and on and on with all the power of the government and all the wealth of BP completely impotent to slow it down, and making mistake after mistake, and telling one big fib after another. I mean that was a real demonstration of ineffectuality. And I think it affected the way people regard government and industry."

And USF's David Hollander says he's learned another lesson - about chance.

"We actually dodged a bullet - if that's even feasible to say with a spill this large," says Hollander. "But conditions could have been much worse. The winds blew from the north, south east and west, and it wasn't until six weeks after the spill was there oil landing in the marshes. There was no tropical storms. The loop current broke off in the middle of May - a rare occurrence. These are all occurrences that conspired to isolate the oil into the northern Gulf of Mexico, not bringing it into land, into marshes, into New Orleans - nor bringing it around the peninsula of Florida, through the Keys and the Florida Straits, up the East Coast."

He says if there's another spill in the Gulf - Florida certainly won't be so lucky.

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