Scientists inspect Florida's shoreline before the oil slick hits

By Curtis Morgan

McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI — This piece of Florida Bay shoreline looked straight out of one of those scenic masterpieces captured by famed Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher.

But Fabian Kahn, a hydrology technician for Everglades National Park, wasn't focusing on gnarled mangrove branches framed by postcard sky or slender prop roots dancing in waves.

Instead, he marked a random spot with a GPS and snapped shots at four points of the compass — an artless documentation mandated by the massive oil spill hundreds of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, the scenery wasn't lost on him.


'Enjoy the view... while it's still here," he muttered. It was mirthless black humor, black as oil.

The shallow cove overlooking Florida Bay was Stop No. 1 for scientists who began a 98-site tour last week of the sprawling park's mangrove forests, sea grass banks and beaches. The mission: Prove what is already here (animals and plants) and what is not (oil or its assorted chemicals and compounds).

Along with photos, they're collecting soil and water samples as well as tissue from mollusks and coastal marine life that might be among the first to be poisoned if some of the millions of gallons of petroleum spewed from BP's blown-out well over the last month makes it into park waters.

Similar time-consuming and tedious exercises have been performed everywhere along the Gulf Coast as local, state and federal agencies scramble to gather "baseline" data. Federal rules require the information to assess environmental destruction if oil does wash ashore and — just as important — how much much BP will shell out to clean up the mess.

"I think it's fair to say we anticipate there will probably be legal issues," said Larry Perez, the park's information officer for the oil spill. "This is science first and foremost, but science in defense of what might come."

Although a small amount of oil entered the Gulf's Loop Current — the powerful pipeline that spills into the Florida Straits — last week, scientists acknowledge they can still only speculate about where it is bound and what impact it might have when it gets there.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the science agency charged with tracking the spill, called the task "extraordinarily challenging."

During a media conference late last week, Lubchenco said the agency couldn't even guess yet how much oil had entered the loop or how much oil might drift unseen beneath the surface. That latter mystery is major concern for South Florida — particularly for Keys reefs — and it drew a letter urging quick answers from the Florida congressional delegation on Friday to the Obama administration.


Lubchenco said the agency was doing aerial surveys and sending ships to gather data that could help, but she stressed that the bulk of the oil remained north of the loop.

For now, she said Florida shouldn't expect to see the awful ooze drowning portions of the fragile salt marshes of the Mississippi Delta. More likely, it will be nasty but less environmentally problematic tar balls, perhaps combined with more damaging 'streamers' of pudding-like goop that she said "may never reach shore at all."

That's the hope of park scientists as well.

But park oceanographer Erik Stabenau also cautioned that the spill was so massive that the entire Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast could feel its effects — if not in massive slicks then in chronic problems that could last decades.

The vast gap between the volumes of oil estimated to be spewing into the Gulf and the volume collected is what worries Stabenau. Whether it has sunk to the bottom or drifting beneath the surface, that oil isn't simply going to disappear. A hurricane could whirl it just about anywhere.

"It may become a common experience to come across this stuff," said Stabenau.

With Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, closer to the Loop, park scientists made it the top priority, surveying its waters and islands earlier this month.

"It's lucky we did, too," said Dave Hallac, the park's chief of biological resources. Tar balls washed ashore there and in other Keys sites last week, though testing showed they weren't from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.


With the Loop typically steering away from the West Coast and into the Florida Straits, the park's coastline and Florida Bay seem less likely to be affected, but that could all change if the spill isn't capped and winds push that massive slick off the Louisiana coast.

The little cove about halfway between Flamingo and Cape Sable, a stretch of habitat known as the coastal prairie, showed just how much would be at risk.

Meaty blue crabs darted through the prop roots. Fiddler and other smaller cousins popped in and out of soggy seaweed and sea grass matts along the shore. The tangled roots of mangroves — red, black and white all grow here — literally hold the land in place and offer shelter and food to hundreds of species of fish and birds. Just up from the broken and crushed shell of the beach was a carpet of salt-hardy ground cover called saltwort.

It's not pristine. Even on this isolated coast, plastic bottles, the remains of a lobster trap and buoys and various bits of trash dot the shoreline, but they're mainly cosmetic problems, not chemical contamination.

Sampling is monotonous work expected to take scientists days. At each site, soil has to be collected from three locations, using a new plastic shovel each time. Each jar is labeled with exact GPS coordinates.

The bugs will be much worse later in the summer but they're still here, including flies the size of small birds.

"Hopefully, we'll just have to do this once," said park botanist Jimi Sadle.

The samples will be shipped to a laboratory in Texas, which will test them for volatile organics and other compounds associated with oil. Park waters shouldn't have any of it.


The New York Times reported Friday that the company selected by NOAA to do the sampling, B&B Laboratories, is run by TDI-Brooks International, which does a lot of analysis work for the oil and gas industry.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is also using the lab at NOAA's request. In an e-mail response, DEP spokeswoman Amy Graham said the state had a lab that could do the work but was using B&B to "ensure consistency and quality assurance."

The park's Hallac said that, with chain of custody rules and forms, the lab's industry links did not trouble him.

"We seem to have a real strong set of protocols," he said. "We feel confident right now that the quality control process is there."


(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

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