Many folks in the Tampa Bay area have a real problem. While the thick globs of BP oil that washed ashore on beaches along Florida’s Panhandle in 2010 never reached Tampa Bay, oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, floating beneath the surface after being sprayed with dispersant, settled on a shelf 80 miles from the Tampa Bay region within a year of the spill’s end. This information comes from a scientific study published last month. There is evidence this may have caused lesions in fish caught in that area, according to Dr. John Paul, the University of South Florida oceanography professor who is lead author on the study, published in Environmental Science & Technology. It should be noted, however, that research is continuing on that question.
The study reported that tests of the samples from those areas on bacteria and other microscopic creatures found in that part of the Gulf discovered that “organisms in contact with these waters might experience DNA damage that could lead to mutation.” Dr. Paul says the oil that landed on the shelf, which extends miles into the Gulf, will likely stay there a long time. He pointed out that “once it’s in the sediment, it’s kind of immobile.” That’s not good news.
Bob Weisberg, a USF oceanographer, who is a colleague of Dr. Paul, found a major upwelling — a swirling current of cool water from deep in the Gulf — had begun in May 2010 and continued through the rest of that year. He says that the upwelling could have caught hold of the underwater plumes of dispersed oil off the Panhandle and then pushed them southward onto the shelf that lies off the state’s west coast. Dr. Weisberg had this to say:
It made its way southeast across the bottom and eventually it gets to the beach. A little bit probably got into Tampa Bay, and a little bit probably got into Sarasota Bay, and it exited the Florida shelf down around the Dry Tortugas.
When he put forward his theory in 2010, Dr. Weisberg called for sampling to be done along the shelf to test whether he was right. But, unfortunately, that proposal did not get any funding. Eventually, though, as part of a series of 12 trips into the Gulf for their own research, Dr. Paul and his colleagues collected samples along the shelf, as well as closer to the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster off Louisiana. They found nothing in 2010, but when they went back in 2011 and 2012, they found exactly what Dr. Weisberg had predicted. The oil did not reach the southern end of the shelf until last year. Water samples collected off the shelf were toxic to bacteria, phytoplankton and other small creatures, the report said. The USF discovery shows that scientists continue to grapple with measuring the full impact of the 2010 disaster.
The 1.8 million gallons of Corexit sprayed into the Gulf broke the oil down into small drops, creating underwater plumes of oil. This is something no one had ever seen before in an oil spill. Corexit is banned in Great Britain because it is believed to cause cancer. Combined with the oil, the mix is deadly. The discovery of the plumes raised questions about how they would affect sea life in the Gulf. During the three years since the spill, scientists have uncovered ongoing damage — deformed crabs, dying dolphins and other woes. Hotel owners, restaurateurs, anglers, beachgoers and other businesses, as well as individuals, should be concerned with the findings of this study. Hopefully, there won’t be a major storm in the Gulf, which is certainly not probable, and the plumes won’t be disturbed. But the question remains – what can be done about them?
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