Q & A

LSU, FSU experts answer questions about the oil spill

Friday, June 18, 2010

Edward Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental scientist, and Ian R. MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanography professor, answer questions about the oil spill. Send additional questions to health-science@washpost.com.

Q: Could a hurricane pick up and disperse the oil onto land?

MacDonald: Definitely. One of the exacerbating factors in the Exxon Valdez spill is that they had a bad storm with near-hurricane-force winds about one week after the spill. That dispersed the oil and made it hard for skimmers to get to it and drove it way up on the beaches. If a hurricane was traveling west, the counterclockwise rotation of the storm would bring oil to the land.

Overton: Yes, but the key word is "disperse." When oil is dispersed, Mother Nature can handle it pretty easily because it's a natural product. In large clumps, it does damage. Will it cause environmental problems? I don't think so, because the oil will be dispersed over a big area.

This is controversial. Some see death and gloom from a hurricane, but that's not my view. A little bit of oil doesn't cause a problem. It's not a terribly dangerous material.

Q: When they burn the oil, how do they control the fire?

Overton: They burn it in . . . booms that are fire-retardant -- they don't burn up from the heat. Once they ignite it, it burns itself out until it uses up all the oil. The whole ocean doesn't burn, just what's collected in those booms.

Q: What efforts are being made to detect contamination in seafood from the gulf?

Overton: There's no fishing or harvesting in a large area that has been affected by the oil. Of course, fish can swim in and out of that zone, so the zone of no fishing is much larger than the actual oil area.

Then, the catch is inspected rigorously by organoleptic testing, which is a fancy science word for taste and smell. A selected portion is undergoing chemical analysis.

MacDonald: There are tasters trained to find seafood contamination. It turns out that the trained palate can detect hydrocarbons in the parts-per-million range.

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