Oily rain and cracks in the earth: Busting Gulf oil spill myths

Scientists are tackling Internet rumors of worst-case senarios from the Gulf oil spill. But as one says, 'What we have going on now is a huge science experiment and research needs to be done on it.'

By , Correspondent

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    Oily waves come ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., Wednesday, June 30. Heavy seas from Tropical Storm Alex helped push more oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster towards the Florida and Alabama coasts.
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As the prospect of an active hurricane season adds a new dimension to the on-going BP Gulf oil spill disaster, on-line media is awash with rumors of impending worst-case scenarios for the region. Viral Internet myths range from a collapsing seabed to oily rain to contaminated seafood.

Here are a few oil spill myths and misconceptions, addressed by scientists, experts, and official sources:

• The blown oil well has spewed so much oil and gas from the substrata of the Gulf floor that the earth around the wellhead could sink and crack, opening multiple oil gushers that could never be stopped. A variation of this scenario involves a sinkhole forming under the well that could collapse, sending tidal waves ashore, or a giant methane gas bubble exploding to similar effect.

According to Gary Byerly, a professor of geology at Louisiana State University, none of this could occur.

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“The idea that there could be a catastrophic cave in, or a methane gas explosion, that’s not a reasonable worry,” said Byerly. “The rock formations on top of this oil deposit have enough strength that nothing like that is going to happen.”

Byerly added that it’s also a common misperception that all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is part of one vast deposit, and if the well isn’t capped all that oil will leak out.

“These are individual deposits that have boundaries and finite amounts of oil,” he said. “But it’s possible that this one deposit could leak for years before it was empty, if it wasn’t capped.”

Some myths based in reality

Although misconceived, some of the myths regarding the blown well and surrounding seabed are based in reality, he added.

Highly pressurized methane gas, which caused the initial explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig, has so far thwarted efforts to cap the well. And natural cracks that occur on the Gulf floor are in fact a source of leaking oil and gas.

“That has been going on for tens of thousands of years, and petroleum and natural gas will find any kind of fault to come to the surface,” he said.

• Last week, a video posted on YouTube purporting to show oily rain falling in a New Orleans suburb became an Internet sensation, prompting a number of cable news channels to debunk the idea.

According to Alberto Mestas-Nuñez, an associate professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, the notion that crude oil could evaporate and then come back down to earth in the rain as something resembling crude oil is impossible.

“I don’t think what is supposedly shown in the video could happen,” said Mestas-Nuñez, an environmental scientist who studies ocean weather cycles. “Oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, and I don’t see how these separate components could evaporate and then recombine in the atmosphere and come down as something like oil.”

Still, Mestas-Nuñez acknowledges, there have been cases of hydrocarbons and other pollutants entering the atmosphere and falling back to earth with rainfall.

Acid rain is one example. Another are the so-called “black rains” that occurred in the Middle East after the Gulf War in 1991 when Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait’s oil fields.

“The oil and surfactants that are out in the Gulf are very complex chemical compounds,” he said. “How they evaporate, how they recombine with different elements, and their solubility with water could be very complicated and has not been studied. What we have going on now in the Gulf is a huge science experiment and research needs to be done on it.”

• Another misconception holds that seafood in the US is no longer safe to eat.

In fact, much of the seafood sold in this country is imported or comes from Alaska. But even on the Gulf Coast, industry spokespeople and government agencies say the seafood is safe. Only about a third of fishing waters on the Gulf have been closed due to oil. While fraud is conceivable, multiple inspection systems are insuring that the region’s seafood is caught in clean waters.

Most fishing areas remain open

“People have two misconceptions about Louisiana seafood – that fishing on our coast is completely shut down, and that the seafood here is not safe,” said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. “In fact, only 189 miles of our 7,500 miles of coastline have been impact by oil. Seventy percent of our fishing areas are open. People are worried about Louisiana seafood, but the irony for us is that it’s being scrutinized more right now than any other food product in the US.”

Agencies involved in testing the state’s seafood include the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Louisiana departments of Health & Hospitals and Wildlife & Fisheries.

The Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals has tested about 500 samples of seafood since the spill began, made up of nearly 15,000 individual specimens of sea life. Chemical testing has shown no harmful levels of hydrocarbons, said spokesperson Olivia Watkins.

The department is also increasing the number of human taste testers it uses. These inspectors, who are certified by NOAA, physically smell and taste seafood to detect contamination by oil.

“Contrary to popular belief, if seafood is contaminated with oil, it couldn’t be hidden,” said Watkins. “It would have a strong odor and taste and would not be marketable at any stage of the process.”

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