By Dr. Carol Pollio
As the oil has diminished (nearly 30 days of no new oil in the Gulf), my job as Liaison Officer (LNO) has definitely changed. Today I spend most of my time doing “rumor control” – allaying fears of phantom oil and assessing the socioeconomic impacts of the spill, and a lot less time on operational issues and political conflicts. This week, I will focus on the rumors that are circulating and how we are trying to deal with them.
Dispersants and Algae
There exists a great deal of fear that dispersants used to treat the oil spill are a threat to public health and the environment. It is certainly true that dispersants had never been used under the water’s surface to disperse oil near the source, as was done here in the Gulf. One current mystery is several reports that have been received that a boat has been seen spraying a clear liquid on the water in the Gulf (presumably spraying dispersant). Like many of the rumors we’re hearing, no one has been able to find this mystery vessel.
Likewise, reports of dispersant “pools” being found inside the bay near Gulf Breeze, Florida, were investigated, turning out to be algae instead. It makes for some busy (and at times a bit crazy) days trying to track down so many dispersant-related reports. To date, none have been founded, but all must be checked out, just in case there is truth to the reports.
What happened to the oil?
Figures released by the DWH Incident Command show that 75 percent of the oil product spilling from the Deepwater Horizon rig has been collected and accounted for – the remaining 25 percent has been (according to official reports) degraded and then disintegrated by wind, water, and sunlight. This, however, is not believed by anyone I have spoken with recently.
Instead, we get daily reports of oil – from the US Army Corps of Engineers saying a core sample they were drilling came up with oil in it (it was decaying organic matter, a very different thing – and smell!) to reports of oil discovered up in the Pensacola Pass (it was sargassum, a type of seaweed). Everyone is convinced that despite the constant overflights and reconnaissance missions that can find no skimmable oil, that somehow there are thousands of barrels of oil still floating around undetected.
A recent CNN report featured local university professors and scientists stating that there is oil remaining on the bottom of the ocean in the DeSoto Canyon. True? I’m not sure. As a scientist myself, I’d like to see the data. What I do know is that every piece of information is being checked out, including this one. As I write this blog, there are vessels with scientists aboard trying to verify if this is the case.
We shouldn’t forget, though, that natural fissures in the ocean floor leak oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily. It will be interesting to see whether this oil is ‘fingerprinted’ to the Deepwater Horizon spill or comes from another source. Regardless of the outcome, this rumor will remain with us (I predict) for a long, long time.
The Hidden Sea of Subsurface Oil
Which brings me to my personal favorite of all of the rumors, that there are vast rivers of undersea oil, flowing under the surface of Gulf waters, waiting for the next storm to pop up to the surface and coat the beaches. The fear, as I see it, is that we will be unprepared, caught unaware, and suffer the consequences of heavily oiled beaches.
The idea of oil “lurking” out in the Gulf reminds me of a character in the children’s movie “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” where “Hexxus,” a toxic/oil monster rises up to destroy the rainforest (played by Tim Curry – very sinister, indeed). Every time I am asked if I believe that this oil exists, I see, in my mind’s eye, a giant “oil monster” rising out of the ocean. Not to poke fun, but it’s sometimes a challenge to respond to some of the rumors we hear on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes humor helps.
As a scientist, though, I cannot say that the rumored river of oil is impossible, but I also don’t think that the volume that some are afraid exists out there is likely. There certainly are small patches of ‘sand-entrained oil’ here and there, and occasional large tar mats that wash ashore. No matter, though, because we are employing several different types of sampling in the water column to try and dispel this rumor (or find this phantom oil, whichever is the case). It is the one rumor I most hope isn’t true! And since nearly every person I speak with asks me about it, I think this is the rumor I’d like to see disappear “soonest.”
Lastly, conspiracy theories abound in a situation like this one. Some of them so outrageous, you would call me a liar if I told you about them. Suffice it to say, there are some wild ones – many of which you’ve no doubt seen on the news. No, I do not think the oil spill was a plot by FEMA or a missile attack by North Korea, but someone does. I think I’ll just get back to dispelling the common, everyday rumors and hope I don’t have to spend too much time on the more far fetched ones. Anyway, I’m plenty busy with the former!
A rumor without a leg to stand on will get around some other way. –John Tudor
Dr. Carol A. Pollio has actively served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve for the past 27 years and holds the rank of Commander. She is currently the Field Operations Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region, where she manages 13 Ecological Services field offices from Maine to Virginia.
Dr. Pollio is also the Program Director for the Environmental Studies degree program at American Military University.