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Oil spill draws scientists to gulf to study environmental impact

By Bonnie Berkowitz and Rob Stein
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; HE06

REDFISH BAY, LA. -- In a strangely silent corner of this usually thriving bay, charter captain Kevin Beach of Metairie says he should be seeing "shrimp, trout jumping, sea gulls . . . and knuckleheads like myself high-fiving over a catch."

Instead, he is seeing serious-minded researchers. Lots and lots of them, quietly collecting samples. They come with glass jars, fiberglass mesh and cameras, ready to gather, label and test samples of the oil and the flora and fauna it threatens -- independent scientists whose work is truth-squadding the crisis as it unfolds, making it impossible for any single source, whether BP or the government, to dominate the flow of information about the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"There are people everywhere doing amazing work to try to understand what's happening," Ian MacDonald, an oceanography professor at Florida State University, said as he drove back to his lab in Tallahassee after spending several days collecting oil samples.

MacDonald, who was among the first to challenge reports about the spill's flow rate, plans to use the samples to help interpret data being collected from satellites, planes and other remote-sensing systems that are tracking the oil. Elsewhere on the gulf, university researchers are striving to identify and draw attention to what they say are vast plumes of oil hovering below the surface.

"If you think of information as a wave, the wave of truth in this calamity is not being driven by the government and government information sources. It's being driven by independent academics who are working under pressure and creatively to get information out," MacDonald said. "It's truly astonishing to see what's happening. The data cloud is so large and so complex, it's beyond the scope of one person to figure it out."

At least for now, the flood of scientists, graduate students and environmental researchers who have descended on the coastal marinas and beaches to get an up-close look at the spill and take the measure of this unprecedented event is an odd silver lining to the dark cloud of oil that threatens the livelihoods of Beach and other charter captains who are within reach of the heaviest slick. Beach typically makes 80 percent of his yearly income from the tourists who come to fish the gulf waters in May, June and July.

"When this thing happened," Beach said of the oil spill, "I had every single day booked through July. Ouch."

Beach said ferrying the scientific crowd is preferable to some of the other makeshift jobs available, and he estimates that he is recouping 60 percent of what he would have made if his boat were booked with tourists.

On a recent trip out of the Venice Marina, Beach took a National Wildlife Federation charter group to observe an oiled marsh, where they met up with MacDonald and other researchers from Florida State taking water samples where oil had managed to get past absorbent booms. The scientists hope the samples will provide clues to what the oil might do when it washes up on the coast of Florida.

Beach said he is making the most of the temporary flood of business from the researchers. But he is not counting on it for long, nor is he savoring it.

MacDonald is part of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force, a consortium of more than 200 scientists at 15 universities in Florida studying the disaster. The task force also has begun working informally with scientists in several other states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and might expand.

"This is so complicated and has so many dimensions. It will take a lot of science to figure out what is happening from a biological point of view, from an oceanographic point of view and from an economic point of view," said W. Ross Ellington, associate vice president for research at Florida State, where the task force is based.

The National Science Foundation has already awarded more than $1.15 million in special grants to scientists from California, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Michigan, Massachusetts and Florida to study a variety of issues related to the environmental effects of the spill and cleanup.

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said local environmental groups and scientists were planning to do independent air sample tests because they were concerned that the federal government's monitoring was inadequate.

"There are a number of groups that are really frustrated with the lack of information that is available. There's a big interest from communities and outside scientists to try to get that information and make it available," said Rotkin-Ellman, who has been meeting with residents and advocacy groups in Louisiana. "They plan to go where people are reporting odors and have the level of sensitivity to monitor for substances the EPA is not monitoring for."

MacDonald also expressed frustration about the dearth of information from BP. For example, researchers would like detailed analyses of the oil as it travels from the broken well on the ocean bottom to the surface.

"The place where we know the least is where we want to know the most," he said. "We've never seen anything like this."

Stein reported from Washington.

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