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Scientific Spill Studies, Funded by BP, Start to Yield Results

02/08/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2014

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Feb. 10, 2014 edition.)

Scientists gathered in Alabama last month said their current research on impacts of the 2010 BP spill will help authorities deal with future disasters. More than 900 people registered for the 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science Conference, held from Jan. 26 to 29 in Mobile. Many of the projects discussed were funded by the nonprofit Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative or GoMRI, the chief sponsor of the conference. BP pledged $500 million to GoMRI in May 2010 for ten years of independent studies. So far, more than a third of that money has been distributed to research consortia, made up of universities and federal entities. The Mobile meeting included 150 lectures and 400 poster presentations.

During the gathering, the University of Rhode Island's Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting held seminars in Mobile to bring journalists up to date on spill findings. Scientists, mainly from universities, addressed a dozen reporters in sessions over three days. Research to date has yielded some results about the impacts of spilled BP oil and the dispersants used on it.

"Oil is still out there, and it's resistant and having an effect on the coast," Nancy Rabalais, executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium or LUMCON in Cocodrie, told Metcalf seminar participants. She leads GoMRI's Coastal Waters Consortium. Rabalais and her colleagues are focused on marsh ecosystem ecology, mainly in the Terrebonne and Barataria estuaries west of the Mississippi River. "Our research, looking at conditions before, during and after the spill, is still evolving," she said. "Some areas were recovering from the spill. But in August 2012, Hurricane Isaac stirred everything up, so we've had re-oiling."

Spartina marsh grass is coming back nicely in some places but its roots are dying in other spots, Rabalais said. Oiled marshes are eroding. Overhangs of oiled coastal land are falling into bays. Small islands that were oiled are particularly vulnerable now, and they're eroding faster than large islands. And since the spill, nests of seaside sparrows in areas exposed to oil have had less success reproducing, caring for their young and surviving.

Unlike a number of spill researchers who began with little or no baseline data, the staff at LUMCON--which was founded 35 years ago and now has an annual $4.6 million research budget--has decades of stats on Gulf coastal ecosystems, hypoxia, aquaculture, phytoplankton, fisheries, coastal restoration and river-ocean interactions. "We have a good, long set of data that allows us to tell whether oil is a factor," Rabalais said. A LUMCON professor and LSU adjunct professor, she's an expert on hypoxia, benthic ecology and coastal ecosystems.

Rabalais said some researchers published their post-spill findings too quickly while conditions were still uncertain. For spill researchers to have any confidence in results, their studies need three to ten years, she said.

Dubravko Justic, a distinguished LSU oceanography professor and one of the investigators in GoMRI's Coastal Waters Consortium, spoke at the Metcalf seminar. The eastern side of the Barataria Bay estuary in Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes was heavily oiled in the 2010 spill, he said. Numerical modeling and satellite imagery indicate that oil entered Barataria Bay's estuary through tidal inlets, particularly at Barataria Pass and Quatre Bayou Pass. All lower Mississippi River freshwater diversions, including the Caernarvon Diversion on the east bank in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes and the Davis Pond Diversion in St. Charles Parish, were opened during the spill to flush out oil, he noted.

Modeling results suggest that opening the river diversions did little to push oil slicks away from Barataria Bay, however, Justic said. Slicks appear to have moved into the bay in clockwise activity associated with southeasterly winds.

Barataria Bay and its marshes are breeding grounds for shellfish, fin fish, alligators, migratory birds, songbirds, ducks and geese. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated the bay as an estuary of national significance.

Numerical models are beginning to take into account the complex, bottom topography of Louisiana's deltaic estuaries, Justic said. "When viewed in high resolution, the Barataria Bay Waterway looks like the Grand Canyon," he said. He believes his group's modeling on slicks in estuaries will help Louisiana officials as they build more river diversions to defend the coast.

Vijay John, Tulane University engineering professor, is the principal investigator of C-MEDS, the Consortium for the Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems, funded by GoMRI and comprised of 22 universities. Dispersants are used to break oil slicks into small droplets in the ocean, where they biodegrade, John said at the Metcalf seminar. C-MEDS is developing more effective dispersants that are less concentrated than current, commercial products, with fewer environmental impacts.

The dispersant used to combat the Deepwater Horizon spill was COREXIT 9500, produced by Nalco in Illinois and cleared for use in the disaster by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In particular, John is researching environmentally benign biopolymers, or substances made up of small molecules chemically joined together, to improve the stability of dispersants so that oil particles remain separated in ocean water for long periods. Applications that his group is studying are intended to reduce the volume of dispersants needed to fight a spill.

In addition, C-MEDS researchers are examining clays that attach to oil droplets, natural dispersants from fungi and the use of blood-gelling technologies to produce dispersants. But it may be ten to twenty years down the road before new, more benign dispersants are commercially available, John said. Oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Shell, are engaged in dispersant research and are members of the C-MEDS consortium.

Agnes Kane, Brown University pathology professor, spoke at the Metcalf seminar about whether nanoparticles might be an alternative to dispersants. She and Brown engineering professors Robert Hurt and Huajian Gao want to know if nano-sorbents, which can capture and sequester oil, are safer and more effective than dispersants in combating spills. COREXIT prevents slicks from forming on the ocean by suspending oil in the water as tiny particles, Kane noted. But larvae feed on those particles, larger organisms eat the larvae and toxins in the oil--including benzene, benzopyrene and naphthalene--move up the food chain and bio-accumulate. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has exposure limits for benzene, benzopyrene and naphthalene, which are known carcinogens.

Kane said nanoparticles might be effective as sponges that sop up those toxins. Her interdisciplinary research is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and she is co-director of a training grant on nanotechnology from the U.S. Dept. of Education. Her dispersant-related research is also funded by the National Science Foundation, GoMRI and Brown University.

Where did most of the oil spilled in 2010 go? "The scenario of oil from the Macondo well flowing up the East Coast, into the northern Atlantic and to the Azores didn't occur," said Arthur Mariano, oceanography professor at the University of Miami, addressing Metcalf participants. He and colleagues developed particle-trajectory forecasting systems and applied them to oil from the Macondo well. Eddies in the Gulf of Mexico during the blowout were one of the factors that prevented oil from moving to the East Coast, he said. Because of eddies, ocean currents and winds, spilled oil formed tentacles or filaments and moved in nonlinear fashion.

"We placed markers or drifters near each other off Louisiana's coast in July 2012, tracked them using GPS satellites, and after a couple of weeks they were hundreds of miles from one another," Mariano said. That showed how tough it is to predict oil's movement in the Gulf.

Mariano's group concluded that, by late 2010, between 20 and 25 percent of oil spilled from the Macondo was in the water column, and much of the rest had evaporated, been removed or had settled on the ocean floor. "Noisy, inconsistent and incomplete ocean data, however, have made it difficult to track the movement of oil from the spill," he said. Budget constraints, including the $10,000 to $20,000 a day it costs to rent a research vessel, have hampered studies. "Nonetheless, a lot of science is being conducted to learn about the movement of oil in the environment," he said.

Other speakers at the Metcalf journalists' seminar in Mobile included Ph.D. chemist Tom Coolbaugh at ExxonMobil; Temple University biology professor Erik Cordes; University of South Florida oceanographer Kendra Daly; University of Texas, Galveston toxicology professor Cornelis Elferink; Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center director Charlie Henry; and Florida State University oceanography professor Markus Huettel.

Metcalf Institute's executive director Sunshine Menezes, with a Ph.D. in biological oceanography, moderated the journalists' seminar. The sessions, she said, introduced participants to current knowledge about the effects of the 2010 spill and gave them new contacts. Metcalf received funds for the seminar from the Consortium for the Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems or C-MEDS, which is in the third year of a GoMRI grant. An initial plan to focus the talks on development of new dispersants--the research goal of C-MEDS--was broadened to make them more useful to journalists, Menezes said.

Some of the twenty reporters registered for the Metcalf seminar were kept away by icy weather, she also said.

According to GoMRI, $178 million of BP's $500 million pledge has been disbursed for scientific research so far. Under GoMRI's guidelines, that money is solely for research, including sampling, modeling and studies, and can't be used to purchase infrastructure. Studies funded by GoMRI must be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, with no requirement for BP approval. To learn more about spill-related research financed by GoMRI, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/consortia end