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Academic scientists say oil from gulf spill is not going away quickly

As BP reduces the size of the "vessels of opportunity" program, fishermen who work in more remote areas are expressing concern about oil they have recently spotted in places where boats have not been deployed.

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Testifying before a House subcommittee Thursday, Florida State University professor Ian R. MacDonald called the administration's account "misleading." He said that the government's assumptions about how much oil is breaking down underwater were too optimistic and that its report didn't mention the natural gas that gushed out of BP's Macondo well along with the oil.

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"This oil is going to be in the environment for a long time. I think that the imprint of the BP release, the discharge, will be detectable in the Gulf of Mexico for the rest of my life," said MacDonald, who is 58.

In that hearing, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) criticized a NOAA scientist for saying that the agency might wait two months before releasing the full details of the methodology it used to calculate what happened to the oil. "That is, to me, unacceptable. We need to have that information," he said.

The report was also challenged this week by a group of Georgia academics. They questioned the government's inclusion in its pie chart of the 17 percent of the oil that emerged from the well but never entered the gulf. It was, instead, siphoned directly to the surface. By including the amount in the official chart, they said, the government seemed to take credit for cleaning up oil that never spilled.

In addition, the Georgia group said the government was overly optimistic in reporting that about 25 percent of the oil either evaporated or dissolved.

"The vast majority of this oil never got to the surface, so it couldn't have evaporated," said Charles S. Hopkinson, a professor in the department of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. Federal officials disagree, estimating that four-fifths of the oil rose to the surface.

The Georgia group's conclusions were built largely on assumptions and calculations -- not direct measurements from the gulf.

To gauge what's really happening underwater, scientists must find tiny droplets in a vast ocean, then wait for lab tests to verify that it's oil from the BP well. In some cases, it's not even oil: One Louisiana scientist said his lab has tested several samples and found that they were an apparently natural substance, now nicknamed "sea snot."

University of South Florida research was an attempt to gather real-world evidence in the gulf. Scientists shone ultraviolet light on sediment from the bottom of the DeSoto Canyon, a deep notch in the edge of the continental shelf, full of sea life. If oil were there, it would reflect the light.

"It flashes back at you as sort of a constellation of bright stars," said David Hollander, a professor who worked on the seafloor study.

Other tests, he said, showed that the water samples near the canyon's rim were toxic to plankton, key creatures at the base of the food chain. But Hollander said that other things reflect UV light, and that further tests are needed to confirm that what they found was BP oil.


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