Scientists find up to 80 percent of BP's spilled oil is on the Gulf floor

Researchers have discovered that oil from BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico extends further east than previously thought. The extent of the spill isn’t visible from the surface because as much as 80 percent of the oil is on the sea floor, stretching from the blown-out well site south of New Orleans to 40 miles south of Panama City, Florida.

A University of South Florida research vessel carrying 13 scientists has been plying the Gulf waters for 10 days investigating the oil spill. The researchers told CNN that they have found toxic levels of oil and dispersants affecting marine organisms off the coast of Panama City.

According to CNN, the researchers found micro-droplets of oil scattered across the ocean floor, and they also found those droplets moving through a part of the Gulf called the DeSoto Canyon, a channel that funnels water and nutrients into the popular commercial and recreational waters along the Florida Gulf Coast.

“This whole concept of submerged oil and the application of dispersants in the subsurface and what are the impacts that it could have, have changed the paradigm of what an oil spill is from a 2-dimensional surface disaster to a 3-dimensional catastrophe,” David Hollander, a chemical oceanographer and one of the lead scientists on the recent USF mission, told CNN.

The organisms affected at this stage, he explained, consist of phytoplankton and other microscopic bacteria in the water, which form the foundation of the Gulf’s food chain. “It feeds and fuels the ecology of the ocean, and if those guys are in trouble, the ocean is in trouble.”

The USF findings contrast sharply with those of government scientists. Dr. Jane Lubchecho, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said earlier this month that the dispersed oil wasn’t making its way up the food chain.

“Fish will degrade that oil and process it naturally. And so it doesn’t bio-accumulate, so it’s not a situation where we need to be concerned about that. Over time, it will be broken down,” Dr. Lubchencho said.

The USF scientists warned that this is a “shortsighted” view of dispersed oil’s hazards. NOAA officials and other scientists haven’t responded yet to the criticism.

Mr. Hollander said that the presence of oil throughout the DeSoto Canyon means that it is traveling to protected marine areas and critical commercial and recreational fishing habitats.