Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Texas Tech Researchers Get First Samples of Oil from Gulf Spill

{Editor’s Note: Difficulties acquiring access to wetlands in Louisiana prompted Texas Tech researchers to continue their work in Alabama}

MOBILE, Ala. -- Thanks to the help of a local television news team, researchers at Texas Tech University received on Memorial Day their first samples of affected seawater and the oily paste floating in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This sample is like gold for the study of environmental and human health questions we are asking,” said Ernest E. Smith, an associate professor in The Department of Environmental Toxicology and The Institute of Environmental and Human Health. “By having this sample, we’ll be able to uniquely determine its components, develop a chemical ‘fingerprint’ of the sample and build a toxicological profile.”

The paste, a brown, gooey blob about the size of a salad plate, was collected by Kimberly Curth of WKRG-CBS in Mobile for a report on the encroaching oil spill that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects to hit Dauphin Island, Ala., sometime this week.

“It’s about the consistency of peanut butter,” Curth said prior to her 6 p.m. live shot. “If you look, there’s an oily sheen to it, but it doesn’t have a diesel smell or oily smell to it. Don’t you think it looks like what’s been washing up in Louisiana, though?”

Curth said she and photojournalist Arnell Hamilton chartered a boat to see the oil for themselves. Starting that morning, their boat left from the eastern end of Dauphin Island and went about 22 miles south before running into patches of the oil.

“There were big globs of it, and then there were, like, little tar balls around it,” she said. “But you could see where it was because there was a sheen on the water.”

The problem became disposing of the oil safely following the segment, she said.

WKRG.com News

WKRG will continue to follow the story as Texas Tech researchers discover the makeup of the sample, she said.

Though oil spills have occurred before in the past, Smith said scientists do not have a full understanding of this particular spill’s impact because of the volume of oil and the fact that it’s raw oil coming straight from the ground into a saltwater environment.

Other factors, such as sunlight, ocean currents and the depth of the leak, also affect the chemistry of the spill, which is constantly changing by location as time passes.

“We have no answers for the current problem, which is very, very large,” Smith said. “There are many variables involved with this particular problem. We just want to add a neutral voice that says ‘these are the facts.’ We’re not activists or politicians.”

As of 6 p.m. on Memorial Day, no sign of the oil had hit the east side of the island, and boaters and holidaymakers continued to fish and use the water. Winds from the southwest could push the oil closer to the Mississippi Delta, according to the NOAA. Oil is expected to reach Mobile Bay by Wednesday.

Also, the NOAA has shut down approximately 26 percent of the Gulf for fishing on the heels of red snapper season, which begins June 1. The area is about 62,000 square miles.

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