Speakeasy Science

Plume. Plume. Plume. So there.

I was on the phone this afternoon with a friend at what I’ll describe as a highly respected national-type newspaper, and we almost simultaneously broke into complaint about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What set us off was NOAA’s grudging admission of the day, that despite angry earlier denials, there were indeed swathes of oil-saturated water coiling for miles, under the surface of the Gulf, emanating away from the site of the BP pipe break.

As The New York Times noted: “the tests confirmed that some toxic compounds that would normally be expected to evaporate from the surface in a shallow-water oil spill were instead spreading through the ocean in the Deepwater Horizon leak.”

I did not experience instant gratification when reading this. Irritation better describes it. Total exasperation on my part. Reputable scientists had first reported on such underwater pollutants starting three weeks ago and NOAA’s response had been to get pissy about it, giving a rather bizarre impression of siding with BP, whose CEO had flatly denied that there was any underwater spread at all. Plenty of people had warned about the potential for BP’s use of chemical dispersants to drive toxic oil beneath the surface; geez, even I was talking about dispersant risks a good two weeks ago.

My friend was further annoyed by a media advisory from NOAA directing reporters to avoid using the word “plume”, which the agency described as inaccurate (read: inflammatory). Journalists don’t handle these dictates well: “They’re trying to control every word we write.”

So a moment to vent here: I’m disappointed in NOAA, which should be leading the way rather than footdragging along. It is an agency that houses some outstandingly good scientists and has history of doing excellent and independent work. I’m disappointed in NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, who until – well, until this oil spill – had a reputation for being a straightforward communicator. And I dislike, hate, really, the way such weaseling around makes our government appear afraid of offending the oil industry.

And since this is my blog, and I get the last word: PLUME, PLUME, PLUME.

Comments

  1. #1 Maggie A
    June 8, 2010

    Can you provide a link to the NOAA advisory to reporters if it’s online?

  2. #2 Kevin Z
    June 8, 2010

    My colleague, a leading chemical ecologist, at the Marine Lab where I work did the toxicity studies for corexit and said 1 ppb killed 50% of all small marine life. I believe nearly 750,000 gallons have been dispersed in the Gulf of Mexico, which coincided with the april/may spawning of the threatened bluefin tuna in the exact area of the oil spill (see map on the PLoS blog: http://everyone.plos.org/2010/06/05/worth-a-thousand-words-23/).

    The information is out there. NOAA knows about it. I don’t know why NOAA and the White House have not taken matters more strictly into their hands.

  3. #3 NJS
    June 9, 2010

    I love the title!

  4. #4 Robert S.
    June 9, 2010

    Kevin Z @2: An LC 50 of 1ppb? That sounds implausible to me, do you have anything to back that up? Could you have misheard ppm, which while at the very high end of toxicity would least would be in the range of things I’ve heard of. V-type nerve agents are only have a LC50 in the 300 ppb range so LC50 at 1ppb for something that you can be in the same room with seems, well, unlikely. On the other hand if you can provide something to back up the 1ppb I’d like to see it. (1ppb would place it in the realm of inhaled polonium and botulinum toxin )

  5. #5 Deborah Blum
    June 9, 2010

    It’s not online – yet, anyway – it’s just mass e-mail sent out by the agency to accredited reporters. But if I can get a copy or more context, I’ll post it here.

  6. #6 David Wescott
    June 9, 2010

    Politically it’s an obvious problem. You’re dealing with this ridiculously huge oil spill and you have a handful of data points that show the existence of these plumes. There is a lot of talk that the use of dispersants may have helped create these plumes. EPA approved use of the dispersants. But you’re NOAA – an entirely different agency in an entirely different section of the government (Dept of Commerce).

    She’s in the tough position of potentially throwing EPA under the bus. Don’t underestimate the intra-agency friction that exists and the desire to avoid this kind of conflict.

    You are also completely dependent on a company to meet your top priority – stopping the leak. Relationships between the company and the government are strained at best. The company is saying things that are in its interest from a PR and liability perspective. Let’s face it – NOAA is not typically an enforcement agency, but things that they say now are going to have an impact on enforcement later. I’m not surprised Lubchenco is being very cautious in her statements. For the time being at least, they still have to work with the company.

    I think the moral of the story is we need to support scientists much more than we do, and journalists should be leveraging independent scientists much more than they currently are on everything from plumes to flow rates to toxicity of chemicals. The government has basically outsourced the task of stopping the leak to BP. They should be outsourcing the data collection & analysis to folks at USF, Georgia, LSU, Southern Miss, etc.

    Oh, and make BP pay for that too.

  7. #7 Maggie A
    June 9, 2010

    I’d appreciate it if you can get ahold of the email. I work an undersea plumes (not oil, other materials) and I’m really wondering what they suggest reporters call them.

  8. #8 Deborah Blum
    June 9, 2010

    If you look at NOAA’s press release (which is the agency version of all those news stories saying NOAA had confirmed the plumes), you’ll see that it does not use the word “plume” once.

    http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100608_weatherbird.html

    It confirms “very low concentrations of sub-surface oil and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) at sampling depths ranging from 50 meters to 1,400 meters.”

    and goes on to note that “concentrations of hydrocarbons decrease with depth,”

    Through a number of conversations, I confirmed that – as my friend told me – NOAA does not think that “plume” is an accurate description what seems to resemble a thin mist of oil in water and that this has come up in interactions with journalists.

    Hope this helps. Deborah

  9. #9 Tom Lalley
    June 10, 2010

    Bob Dylan once sang that “you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” But if you’re the part of the federal government charged with conducting scientific studies of the biggest environmental disaster in the nations history, and what you say profoundly impacts millions of people’s lives and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, then you probably DO want a weather man to say which way the wind blows.

    Meanwhile, everybody – me included – is growing more and more outraged at the scale of this disaster. We want information about what’s really happening out there: where’s the oil? How much is there? What’s the toxicity? How will the ecosystem respond?

    Caught in the middle is NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco. She has the unenviable task of conducting scientific studies in the middle of this mess and she deserves credit for promoting government transparency in the science around the disaster. As soon as results were validated Tuesday, NOAA communicated and released to the public data from the recent scientific mission of the R/V Weatherbird II that tested Gulf water. This was an important step to build public confidence in the government’s handling of the disaster.

    Crisis situations like the BP oil disaster remind us all that the public has a right to know what’s going on. While I—and I’m sure many others—are frustrated that many of our questions haven’t yet been answered, transparency in the results gives me confidence that we are getting the full story.

  10. #10 Someone
    June 10, 2010

    NOAA’s reluctance to verify the existence of large volumes of subsurface oil is due to two things: One they are not only responsible for coordinating the cleanup, they are also responsible for suing the responsible parties (in this case, BP, TransOcean and Halliburton) for damages caused to the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore they have to be much more certain of the evidence demonstrating there is any damage, and they also have to treat any science collected as evidence and therefore are reluctant to release it to the public before any trial. Lastly, Dr. Lubchenco presented data from a NOAA cruise from last week at LSU suggesting there are a number of natural seeps surrounding the DWH spill site that makes the presence of hydrocarbons at depth less than conclusive evidence that the spill site itself is responsible for these subsurface hydrocarbon signals. This does not mean there isn’t a significant subsurface “plume” from the spill, it just means we need more conclusive proof.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    June 12, 2010

    I was looking at the legislation that limits liability in the case of a spill

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode33/usc_sec_33_00002701—-000-.html

    and it is interesting. The liability cap is the cost of cleanup plus $75 million. BP’s liability for cleanup is unlimited, it is only non-cleanup damages that can be limited to $75 million. BP is better off spending less on cleanup, even if it causes more damage because their cleanup cost is unlimited by the liability due to damage from insufficient cleanup is capped at $75 million. BP has no incentive to spend anything to mitigate damage. What ever they spend to mitigate damage comes out of their pocket but any damage from insufficient cleanup comes out of someone else’s pocket.

    But, if BP commits any crime, or is negligent in their actions or cleanup, then their liability becomes unlimited. I think there is pretty good evidence that they have already by low-balling the leak numbers, by hiding dead animals and by lying in their filing documents (i.e. listing dead people as the ones to contact in case of a spill).

  12. #12 Grant
    June 26, 2010

    No a very helpful comment, this, but great title!