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Killer Undersea Oil Plumes From BP Spill Lurk in Gulf of Mexico

Photographer: Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg

Oil washes up on the coast of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana. Close

Oil washes up on the coast of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana.

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Photographer: Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg

Oil washes up on the coast of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana.

Undersea clouds of oil that can kill off marine life have spread for miles in the Gulf of Mexico from BP Plc’s leaking Macondo well, according to preliminary data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today.

Water samples collected by the R/V Weatherbird II vessel have confirmed biodegraded crude oil in two undersea layers as far as 40 nautical miles northeast of BP’s seabed leak, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said at a press briefing. The vessel’s samples show oil as deep as 3,300 feet in the water, Lubchenco said.

“The bottom line is that yes, there is oil in the water column, it’s at very low concentrations, and we will continue to release those data as soon as they are available,” Lubchenco said at a press conference held jointly with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. “That doesn’t mean that it does not have significant impact.”

Researchers have said the oil slick washing ashore is a small portion of what has leaked and the undersea crude can wipe out marine life while remaining invisible from the surface. Lubchenco said not enough data is available to determine the quantity of oil below the surface. However, she said oil was found at volumes of 0.5 parts per million in the cloud to the northeast of the leak.

‘No Evidence’

The tests are the second confirmation of the existence of oil plumes in the Gulf, which BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward has disputed. Research by Samantha Joye at the University of Georgia, and analyzed at Texas A&M University, also confirmed the presence of undersea oil.

Hayward said June 6 that there was “no evidence” of the plumes in the Gulf of Mexico. The company is waiting for confirmation from NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency, Robert Wine, a BP spokesman in Houston, said in a telephone interview yesterday. NOAA is expected to present additional data later this morning at a joint presentation with researchers from the University of South Florida.

BP didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the preliminary figures.

The university’s scientists found oil in two layers of the ocean at 400 meters and 1,000 meters. They tracked the plumes for tens of kilometers, starting 35 kilometers north-northeast of the well, said Vickie Chachere, a university spokeswoman.

‘Huge Volumes’

The concentrations at more shallow depths were identified as having come from BP’s leaking well, Lubchenco said. The scientists were not able to find conclusive evidence that the deeper concentrations came from the well, she said. Water samples taken 142 nautical miles to the southeast of the well were not consistent with the spill, she said.

“These are huge volumes of oil, many kilometers of oil, and to have oil in many cubic kilometers of water suggests a very significant total amount,” said Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who is doing separate research on the spill.

MacDonald estimates the well is leaking 26,500 barrels to 30,000 barrels a day, six times more than the figure that BP and the government used from April 28 to May 27. The company has captured 14,842 barrels in the last 24 hours, Allen said today.

Additional data will allow researchers to produce images of slices of the ocean similar to those produced by magnetic resonance imaging machines used by doctors. The data will allow the scientists to determine crude concentrations in the different slices, Lubchenco said. The NOAA vessel Gordon Gunter has returned to shore and is analyzing its findings. A second research ship, the Thomas Jefferson, is collecting additional samples, she said.

Hayward said June 6 oil naturally floats in water, and that crude seen deep in the water was in the process of making its way to the surface, according to reports in the Associated Press.

Chemical Dispersants

Scientists maintain that oil could have become trapped in the water due to the company’s unprecedented application of chemical dispersants, natural phenomenon, or a combination of the two.

BP has applied more than a million gallons of dispersant to the spill, and has almost another half-million gallons on hand to apply if needed, according to a statement from the Unified Command made up of BP and U.S. Coast Guard officials. The dispersants have been applied to oil at the surface, as well as to crude gushing out of the well on the sea floor.

The dispersants may have caused the crude oil to sink more than it normally would have.

“There would be a threshold where putting dispersant in the oil would modify the viscosity,” said Nicholas Wienders, a professor in the oceanography department at Florida State University. If the viscosity of the oil was changed, it could react differently to the ocean’s circulation, and behave in ways not normally expected, he said.

Trapped Oil

Natural density differences in water layers could also have trapped the oil, said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

The pressure being applied to crude surging out of the well may also change its dispersion, said MacDonald of Florida State University.

As the oil is forced out of the broken pipe at hundreds of miles an hour, it hits the relatively lower-pressure area near the sea floor that breaks the oil into particles about the thickness of a human hair, MacDonald said. Their small size, exposure to significant pressure, and cold temperatures near the sea floor may all contribute to oil sinking, he said.

‘Derelict’ in Duty

“There is no scientific doubt about the processes that would form mid-water plumes,” he said. BP and the Coast Guard haven’t gauged the pressure of the leaking oil, making it more difficult for scientists to predict and track plumes, said MacDonald. “It’s another example of both BP and the government being derelict in their duty,” he said.

Captain Brent “Hollywood” Shaver, 59, who operates a charter fishing boat in Florida and Alabama waters, laughed when asked about BP’s comment that there aren’t underwater oil plumes.

“They’re crazy,” he said in a June 7 interview. “You know, when you spill diesel fuel in the water they always tell you not to put dish soap on it because it just makes it sink. That’s what is happening here. It’s sinking.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York at jresnickault@bloomberg.net

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