Special Reports

Researchers: Oil plume found in deep water

PENSACOLA — Florida researchers have confirmed subsurface oil as deep as 3,300 feet about 40 miles northeast of the spewing BP wellhead.

The oil was in “very low concentrations,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, adding that researchers also found oil at depths of 1,000 feet at a location 142 nautical miles southeast of the well head, but that oil was “not consistent’’ with the BP spill.

“All of this scientific information is helping us understand, again, the oil, where it is, what impact it might be having,” Lubchenco said Tuesday during a news briefing. “We remain concerned about the location of oil on the surface and under the sea.”

She said authorities always suspected oil had spread under the surface, but that it was ‘‘good to have confirmation.”

The analysis comes from water samples taken by researchers at the University of South Florida and measured oil at less than 0.5 parts per million.

Ernst Peebles, a University of South Florida scientist, and Steven Murawski, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cited data from the cruise of the R/V Weatherbird II May 23-26 during a conference call Tuesday from St. Petersburg. The Weatherbird sampled areas ranging from 40 nautical miles north of the Deepwater Horizon site to as far way as 142 nautical miles southeast of site.

“We know there is some oil at depth in layers. We don’t know its origin, its extent. The layers are definitely oil. The origins are less clear,” Peebles said.

Scientists found emulsified oil — the now infamous brown or orange substance on the surface, with its interior looking more like a mousse along the Louisiana coast and ranging toward the Florida panhandle. The mousse was also found as deep as 10 feet under the surface.

Also found was what scientists called “invisible oil,” particles so small as to be detectable only by chemical analysis at 400 meters and 1,000 meters below the surface.

Scientists say thus far they have been able to positively identify surface samples only from the “slick one” location, located 40 and 45 miles northeast of the Deepwater Horizon well as having the same chemical fingerprint. But scientists said samples taken from 142 miles away have trace oil present, but concentrations too low to allow source determination. It’s possible that the oil is from natural seeps that occur in the Gulf of Mexico.

As test results were announced, authorities continued to fight the spill.

Allen said the containment cap, put in place last week, is continuing to capture more oil. It captured 14,842 barrels in a 24-hour period, saying it has “climbed steadily’’ from the first day it was in place.

Winds and currents have pushed the oil toward Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, but a westward current could hold the oil in place, Admiral Thad Allen said Tuesday.

Dime-size pieces of tar balls continued to wash ashore on the white sand beaches of Okaloosa Island, on the outskirts of Destin, but county emergency management said current wind patterns are sending oil sheen spotted in the Gulf farther away, buying the popular tourist destination more time for residents and tourists to enjoy the water.

“The winds have been favorable to us in that respect,” said Dino Villani, public

safety director for Okaloosa County.

Further east in Walton and Bay counties, officials ramped up their efforts to protect their water ways now that light oil sheen reports from Escambia to Bay counties were confirmed Monday by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In Walton County, there have been a little more than a dozen quarter-size tar ball sightings on 26 miles of beaches, said Mike Gurspan, spokesman for the Walton County Sheriff’s Office.

For now, Walton’s biggest concern is the possibility of oil reaching its dune lake system. County contractors have been packing mounds of sand on the ridges of the county’s 13 lakes to keep potential oil sheen at bay.

“Our biggest issue right now is working to protect our intricate dune lake system,” Gurspan said. “It’s a 13-lake system with some of the most pristine water you’ve seen.

“At this point we’re kind of waiting and hoping for the best,” Gurspan said. Pensacola Beach awoke to a palpable sense of collective relief — at least for now — as Tuesday began with no signs of more globs of tar on the sand.

Few people strolled the beach, which has sea shells and broken sand dollars scattered along the shore, a happy change from Friday’s and Saturday’s oily goop. The amount of tar washing ashore began decreasing Sunday, a trend that continued Tuesday.

Beach cleanup workers contracted by BP were hoping for a slower day, especially after Monday’s suffocating heat made it difficult for crews clad in plastic gear to work. On Tuesday, the workers seemed to be gathering more litter, such as cans and plastic bottles, than tar.

Sherri Burge of Pensacola was also on the beach with her mother, Shirley, ready to pick up trash and not bits and pieces of the spill.

“We need to be here as much as we can and appreciate it,” Sherri Burge said of the beach.

President Barack Obama defended his administration’s actions Tuesday in a televised interview, saying, “From day one we understood that this was going to be a major disaster. We have put unprecedented resources to deal with it.

“You’ve got a camera showing oil spilling out in the Gulf, and people are understandably frustrated, and they’re upset. And they have every right to be,” Obama said. “But here’s what I can say. That we have responded with unprecedented resources. . . .

“The fact of the matter is there has not been an idea that is mentioned out there by any of the critics that we haven’t evaluated,” he said. “And if it was going to work, we would have done it. ‘’

Asked about criticism that he hasn’t been forceful enough, Obama said he was “down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf.”

“A month ago I was meeting with fishermen down there, standing in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be,” he said. “And I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick. Right?

“I don’t always have time to perform for the benefit the cable shows,” he said.

‘‘What I do have is dedication and commitment to make sure the people who are actually being affected by this are going to get the best possible service from me. And as long as I’m president, that’s the approach that I’m going to take to this job.”

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