NOAA ship to search for underwater oil plumes from leak site

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 6:38 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- A survey vessel named after the U.S. president who founded the nation's first science agency is scheduled to depart this city late Wednesday or Thursday for the Gulf of Mexico, with the aim to answer a burning, ominous question: Are there monstrous, miles-long oil plumes spreading underwater from the Deepwater Horizon leak?

The NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, based out of Norfolk, will embark on a 10-day mission that is "aggressive, sustained, strategic and scientific," according to Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, who wore starfish earrings as she addressed media Wednesday afternoon on a wharf at the end of Bienville Street.

Last week scientists from Louisiana State University and the University of South Florida asserted that such plumes exist and could bypass coastal defenses, but their findings were parried by skepticism from BP CEO Tony Hayward and the U.S. government.

"There's been a lot of speculation," Lubchenco said, and the "unique technology on board and a robust methodology will help us detect and characterize any submerged oil."

The Thomas Jefferson will carry 36 crew members to within five miles of the leaking wellhead to conduct sonar and ultraviolet scans, collect water samples and, ideally, distinguish deep-water anomalies from actual submerged crude.

NOAA crew escorted media on a tour of the Thomas Jefferson, its cozy 45-foot width stocked with mustard-colored salvage drums, torpedo-like side-scan sonar machines and antiquated decorative maps of Virginia and Maryland. In the captain's office, an echogram rendered underwater objects in every color of the rainbow. In a best-case scenario, crew members will use echograms and a fluorometer, which measures light emissions, to identify anomalies and scoop water samples from as deep as 1,000 feet below the surface.

But using these tools to seek dispersed oil in such a wide area is an uncertain endeavor, according to Larry A. Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire.

"We're not 100 percent sure this will work," said Mayer, who is part of the mission. "But we'll be working night and day to figure that out."

The 208-foot, 1,600-ton vessel normally provides the staging ground for updating nautical charts, and it happened to be near the offshore border of Texas and Louisiana on April 20, when the rig blew. This is the first oil-focused project for the ship, and its crew for this mission consists of NOAA officers and experts from federal agencies, universities and research institutions -- some of whom were notified just last week that they were needed onboard.

The vessel's departure time remained up in the air Wednesday afternoon because the fluorometer had not yet arrived by FedEx, said research associate and crew member Daniel Torres of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

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