August 18, 2010 in Nation/World

Scientists dispute claim that half of spill is gone

Oil is found in soil; poisoned plankton
Seth Borenstein Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Survey technician Jim Burkitt adjusts bottles used to capture subsurface water samples aboard a research vessel near the coast of Louisiana on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Researchers are warning that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a bigger mess than the government claims and that a lot of crude is lurking deep below the surface, some of it settling perhaps in a critical undersea canyon off the Florida Panhandle.

The evidence of microscopic amounts of oil mixing into the soil of the canyon was gathered by scientists at the University of South Florida, who also found poisoned plant plankton – the vital base of the ocean food web – which they blamed on a toxic brew of oil and dispersants.

Their work is preliminary, hasn’t been reviewed by other scientists, requires more tests to confirm it is BP’s oil they found, and is based on a 10-day research cruise that ended late Monday night. Scientists who were not involved said they were uncomfortable drawing conclusions based on such a brief look.

But those early findings follow a report on Monday from Georgia researchers that said as much as 80 percent of the oil from the spill remains in the Gulf. Both groups’ findings have already been incorporated into lawsuits filed against BP.

Both groups paint a darker scenario than that of federal officials, who two weeks ago announced that most of the oil had dissolved, dispersed or been removed, leaving just a bit more than a quarter of the amount that spewed from the well that exploded in April.

At the White House on Aug. 4, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said: “At least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system, and most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.”

That’s not what the scientists from South Florida and Georgia found.

“The oil is not gone, that’s for sure,” University of South Florida’s David Hollander said Tuesday. “There is oil and we need to deal with it.”

University of Georgia’s Samantha Joye said: “It’s a tremendous amount of oil that’s in the system. … It’s very difficult for me to imagine that 50 percent of it has been degraded.”

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