Oceanographers say spill response too slow

Tensions between the Obama
administration and the scientific community over the gulf oil spill are
escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to
conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure
the spill’s true scope.

The scientists assert that the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies have been
slow to investigate the magnitude of the spill and the damage it is causing in
the deep ocean. They are especially concerned about getting a better handle on
problems that may be occurring from large plumes of oil droplets that appear to
be spreading beneath the ocean surface.

The scientists point out that in
the month since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, the government has
failed to make public a single test result on water from the deep ocean. And
the scientists say the administration has been too reluctant to demand an
accurate analysis of how many gallons of oil are flowing into the sea from the
gushing oil well.

“It seems baffling that we don’t
know how much oil is being spilled,” Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer, said
Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “It seems baffling that we don’t know where the oil
is in the water column.”

The administration acknowledges
that its scientific resources are stretched by the disaster, but contends that
it is moving to get better information, including a more complete picture of
the underwater plumes.

“We’re in the early stages of doing
that, and we do not have a comprehensive understanding as of yet of where that
oil is,” Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, told Congress on Wednesday.
“But we are devoting all possible resources to understanding where the oil is
and what its impact might be.”

The administration has mounted a
huge response to the spill, deploying 1,105 vessels to try to skim oil, burn it
and block it from shorelines. As part of the effort, the federal government and
the Gulf Coast states have begun an extensive effort to catalog any
environmental damage to the coast. The Environmental Protection Agency is
releasing results from water sampling near shore. In most places, save for
parts of Louisiana, the contamination appears modest so far.

The big scientific question now is
what is happening in deeper water. While it is clear that water samples have
been taken, the results have not been made public.

Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of
the Environmental Protection Agency, told Congress on Wednesday that she was
pressing for the release of additional test results, including some samples
taken by boats under contract to BP.

While the total number of boats
involved in the response is high, relatively few are involved in scientific
assessment of the deep ocean.

Of the 19 research vessels owned by
NOAA, 5 are in the Gulf of Mexico and available for work on the spill, Dr.
Lubchenco said, counting a newly commissioned boat. The flagship of the NOAA
fleet, the research vessel Ronald H. Brown, was off the coast of Africa when
the spill occurred on April 20, and according to NOAA tracking logs, it was not
redirected until about May 11, three weeks after the disaster began. It is
sailing toward the gulf.

At least one vessel under contract
to BP has collected samples from deep water, and so have a handful of
university ships. NOAA is dropping instruments into the sea that should help
give a better picture of conditions.

On May 6, NOAA called attention to
its role in financing the work of a small research ship called the Pelican,
owned by a university consortium in Louisiana. But when scientists aboard that
vessel reported over the weekend that they had discovered large plumes undersea
that appeared to be made of oil droplets, NOAA criticized the results as
premature and requiring further analysis.

Rick Steiner, a marine biologist
and a veteran of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, assailed NOAA in an interview,
declaring that it had been derelict in analyzing conditions beneath the sea.

Mr. Steiner said the likelihood of
extensive undersea plumes of oil droplets should have been anticipated from the
moment the spill began, given that such an effect from deepwater blowouts had
been predicted in the scientific literature for more than a decade, and
confirmed in a test off the coast of Norway. An extensive sampling program to
map and characterize those plumes should have been put in place from the first
days of the spill, he said.

“A vast ecosystem is being exposed
to contaminants right now, and nobody’s watching it,” Mr. Steiner said. “That
seems to me like a catastrophic failure on the part of NOAA.”

Mr. Steiner, long critical of
offshore drilling, has fought past battles involving NOAA, including one in
which he was stripped of a small university grant financed by the agency. He
later resigned from the University of Alaska at Anchorage and now consults
worldwide on oil-spill prevention and response.

Oceanographers have also criticized
the Obama administration over its reluctance to force BP, the oil company
responsible for the spill, to permit an accurate calculation of the flow rate
from the undersea well. The company has refused to permit scientists to send
equipment to the ocean floor that would establish the rate with high accuracy.

Ian MacDonald of Florida State
University, an oceanographer who was among the first to question the official
estimate of 210,000 gallons a day, said he had come to the conclusion that the
oil company was bent on obstructing any accurate calculation. “They want to
hide the body,” he said.

Andrew Gowers, a spokesman for BP,
said this was not correct. Given the complex operations going on at the sea
floor to try to stop the flow, “introducing more equipment into the immediate
vicinity would represent an unacceptable risk,” he said.

Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard
admiral in charge of the response to the spill, said Wednesday evening that the
government had decided to try to put equipment on the ocean floor to take
accurate measurements. A technical team is at work devising a method, he said.
“We are shoving pizzas under the door, and they are not coming out until they
give us the answer,” he said.

Scientists have long theorized that
a shallow spill and a spill in the deep ocean — this one is a mile down — would
behave quite differently. A 2003 report by the National Research Council
predicted that the oil in a deepwater blowout could break into fine droplets,
forming plumes of oil mixed with water that would not quickly rise to the

That prediction appeared to be
confirmed Saturday when the researchers aboard the Pelican reported that they
had detected immense plumes that they believed were made of oil particles. The
results were not final, and came as a surprise to the government. They raise a
major concern, that sea life in concentrated areas could be exposed to a heavy
load of toxic materials as the plumes drift through the sea.

Under scrutiny from NOAA, the
researchers have retreated to their laboratories to finish their analysis.

In an interview, Dr. Lubchenco said
she was mobilizing every possible NOAA asset to get a more accurate picture of
the environmental damage, and was even in the process of hiring fishing vessels
to do some scientific work.

“Our intention is to deploy every
single thing we’ve got,” Dr. Lubchenco said. “If it’s not in the region, we’re
bringing it there.”