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Massive stretches of weathered oil spotted in Gulf of Mexico ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Bob Marshall
The Times-Picayune
Tuesday, Oct 26, 2010

Oil was spotted in West Bay just west of the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River, seen at top left, by the Gulf of Mexico Friday October 22, 2010.
Photo: Matthew Hinton (More photos of the weathered oil below)

See 2nd Report Below: US Coast Guard
Claim that Sighting is Algae, Not Oil

Just three days after the U.S. Coast Guard admiral in charge of the BP oil spill cleanup declared little recoverable surface oil remained in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana fishers Friday found miles-long strings of weathered oil floating toward fragile marshes on the Mississippi River delta.

The discovery, which comes as millions of birds begin moving toward the region in the fall migration, gave ammunition to groups that have insisted the government has overstated clean-up progress, and could force reclosure of key fishing areas only recently reopened.

The oil was sighted in West Bay, which covers approximately 35 square miles of open water between Southwest Pass, the main shipping channel of the river, and Tiger Pass near Venice. Boat captains working the BP clean-up effort said they have been reporting large areas of surface oil off the delta for more than a week but have seen little response from BP or the Coast Guard, which is in charge of the clean-up. The captains said most of their sightings have occurred during stretches of calm weather, similar to what the area has experienced most of this week.

On Friday reports included accounts of strips of the heavily weathered orange oil that became a signature image of the spill during the summer. One captain said some strips were as much as 400 feet wide and a mile long.

The captains did not want to be named for fear of losing their clean-up jobs with BP.

Coast Guard officials Friday said a boat had been dispatched to investigate the sightings, but that a report would not be available until Saturday morning.

However, Times-Picayune photojournalist Matt Hinton confirmed the sightings in an over-flight of West Bay.

Robert Barham, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said if the sightings are confirmed by his agency, the area will be reclosed to fishing until it is confirmed oil-free again.

Just Tuesday, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, in charge of the federal response, and his top science adviser, Steve Lehmann, said that little of the 210 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf remained on the surface or even on the Gulf's floor. Lehmann pointed to extensive tests conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that included taking samples of water from various depths, as well as collections of bottom sediments both far offshore and close to the coast.

Those claims, announced on the six-month anniversary of the spill, brought quick rebuttals from a variety of environmental and fishermen's groups who insist their members have been reporting sightings of surface oil all along.

LSU environmental sciences professor Ed Overton, who has been involved in oil spill response for 30 years, said he believes both claims could be accurate. The Louisiana sweet crude from the Deepwater Horizon is very light and has almost neutral buoyancy, Overton said, which means that when it picks up any particles from the water column, it will sink to the bottom.

"It's quite possible that when the weather calms and the water temperatures changes, the oil particles that have spread along the bottom will recoagulate, then float to the surface again and form these large mats.

"I say this is a possibility, because I know that the (Coast Guard) has sent boats out to investigate these reports, but by the time they get to the scenes, the weather has changed and they don't see any oil."

"I think the reports are credible, but I also think the incident responders are trying to find the oil, too,'' Overton said. "This is unusual, but nothing about this bloody spill has been normal since the beginning."

Overton said it is important for the state to discover the mechanism that is causing the oil to reappear because even this highly weathered oil poses a serious threat to the coastal ecology.

"If this was tar balls floating around, that would be one thing, but these reports are of mats of weathered oil, and that can cause serious problems if it gets into the marsh," he said

The reports are a great concern to wildlife officials. The Mississippi delta is a primary wintering ground for hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese, some of which already have begun arriving. The West Bay area leads into several shallower interior bays that attract ducks, geese and myriad species of shore and wading birds each winter.

Earlier this month state wildlife officials were expressing optimism the spill would have minimal impact on most waterfowl visitors because little oil had penetrated the sensitive wintering grounds.


Coast Guard says substance found floating in Gulf is algae, not oil
by Bob Marshall, Times-Picayune

"I've never seen algae that looked orange, that was sticky, smelled like oil and that stuck to the boat and had to be cleaned off with solvent," said one captain, who like the others wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their BP contracts. "I'll wait for the lab reports. In fact, we're also sending some samples off."

A Coast Guard official said Saturday the orange substance floating in
miles-wide areas of West Bay on the Mississippi River delta appears to be algae, not oil as reported Saturday morning by The Times-Picayune.

Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil said a Coast Guard pollution investigator has collected samples near the mouth of Tiger Pass and, while those samples need to be tested in a lab, "based on his observation and what he sees in the sample jars, he believes that to be an algal bloom."

Last August large red algae blooms were confirmed on the Mississippi River delta as well as in Breton and Chandeleur sounds.

LSU researchers said such large blooms are not unusual along the Louisiana coast from spring through fall if the nutrient-rich water flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River becomes warm enough.

However, boat captains working in the BP oil spill response team who first reported the sightings as oil said Saturday they were not convinced by the Coast Guard's initial assessment.

"I've never seen algae that looked orange, that was sticky, smelled like oil and that stuck to the boat and had to be cleaned off with solvent," said one captain, who like the others wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their BP contracts. "I'll wait for the lab reports. In fact, we're also sending some samples off."

Boat captains had said Friday they had become frustrated by a lack of response from the Coast Guard after a week of reporting the sightings.

A Coast Guard spokesman said Friday that his office knew nothing about reports of large areas of weathered oil surfacing in the Gulf. He said the only report from the area of West Bay was "a 10-by-10 area of foam and oil called into the Houma office by a shrimper."

But O'Neil said Saturday that the Coast Guard had actually been investigating the claims since Wednesday.

He said the New Orleans Sector of the Coast Guard had conducted a helicopter overflight of the area Wednesday and the pollution investigator on board concluded the substance was an algae bloom. A Coast Guard boat was dispatched to the area to collect samples, he said, but it had to turn back due to rough seas.

O'Neil said that information was not provided to The Times-Picayune on Friday because the Coast Guard spokesman responding to questions was stationed at the Unified Command Office, which is in New Orleans but not in the same building as the New Orleans Sector office.

"The Unified Command doesn't have visibility on each and every pollution report filed in the Gulf of Mexico on each and every activity conducted by each and every sector," he said.

The reports of oil came just three days after the Coast Guard officer in charge of the federal government's response to the BP spill, Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, said research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed little recoverable oil remained in the Gulf.

Fishers and environmental groups have consistently countered such claims with reports of personal sightings of oil floating in the Gulf and washing up on beaches.

Bob Marshall can be reached at bmarshall@timespicayune.com

Source: The Times-Picayune

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