Washington, D.C.—(ENEWSPF)—September 27, 2010.
Paul Zukunft: Well, good afternoon. Thank you for joining us. And again, it’s great to be joined by NOAA, our scientific support coordinator, and also with David who represents academia as we look at this phase of the operation, as we look at what’s below the surface.
And I’m also joined by the captain of the NOAA research vessel Pisces, Jesse Stark. And it’s great to be pier side before this vessel prepares to set sail this afternoon on a very critical mission integral to this oil spill.
Just to bring you up to date on where we are with the spill, we still have a very active response across the four states and the Gulf of Mexico and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. On Wednesday, I was down in Bay Jimmy down in Barataria Bay where we had over 600 workers working off a floating barge responding to oil in that area in a very isolated marshland.
But there’s still removal operations taking place as I speak today. So we’re still recovering oil, but at the same time, our next area of concern, as it has been from day one, is what is below the surface.
We heard that the well was killed on the 19th of September, and actually we’ve had no oil introduced – no new oil since the 15th of July, and our oil trajectory grid went to a white screen with no recoverable oil since on or about the 1st of August.
So now our challenge is to look at what is on the sea floor, and so the NOAA vessel Pisces is one of several vessels that will participate in that mission. I have the best of science here surrounding me just as we did, when we did that relief well, which was a feat – quite a feat onto itself to be able to intercept that well from three miles away, a seven-inch casing intercepting a seven-inch casing.
Well, now we need to verify with the best of science what is in that water column, what is in the sea floor, down to depths up to and exceeding 5,000 feet integral to this oil spill response. So that’s where we’re going in the next phase of this operation. And I do look forward to seeing the NOAA vessel Pisces get underway for this mission this afternoon.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Janet Baran.
Janet Baran: Baran, yes, thank you, Admiral.
So we’re very glad to be here today on the NOAA ship Pisces. The Pisces has been a very important part of our mission this whole summer. It’s been out doing acoustic monitoring during the well head integrity tests as well as doing water sampling in the last couple cruises.
We have been working on monitoring the subsurface since early May and continue to do so. This – our monitoring covers the near shore, the south and the deep water, from the surface to the bottom of the ocean. And we’re looking to really understand if there is any recoverable oil or if there’s anything else that we can do about it.
We’ve had numerous vessels out. Currently we have about six vessels who are working in the continental shelf and deep water doing sediment and water sampling, and this vessel will be part of that. All vessels are coordinated through unified area command, and we even host a call every day between all the chief scientists to talk about what they’re finding so that we can (adaptably) change our missions if there is something we find.
To date, we have collected more than 30,000 samples in the Gulf of Mexico, from the Texas-Louisiana border to the Florida Keys. Last week we had over six vessels out, mostly doing water sampling. This week has been the initiation of most of our deeper water sediment sampling.
The Gyre went out this week as well as the Ocean Veritas and now the Pisces. These three vessels will do all the deeper water sediment sampling. We have a couple vessels out in the near shore doing sediment and water sampling, that’s up to three nautical miles from the shore, doing a wide sweep to ensure that there is no oil in the sediment.
We find very little amounts of (residue) oil on near shore. It’s being degraded naturally and recovered where possible. And we really are committed to ensuring the safety of the Gulf and restoring the Gulf as we move out of this phase of trying to determine how we can fix things – not fix things – how we can stop and recover oil and moving to restoration.
We have teams out, part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment Team, who will be looking at the long-term impacts and helping restore the Gulf. We do have a couple of resources which may be helpful to you. We have a live mission log at NOAA.gov where we have blogs from all of our vessels that are out, giving live updates on what they’re finding. And also, if you would like to see the sampling location data and results, you can go to GeoPlatform.gov.
And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. David Valentine who is our chief scientist on this mission.
David Valentine: My name is Dr. David Valentine, I’m a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and I’m here representing academia. I’m serving currently as chief scientist on the NOAA ship Pisces for this expedition.
Joining me – I have additional academic scientists from a number of institutions, including the U.S. Geological Survey, East Carolina University, California Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
We have four main sampling areas that we’re targeting – or four main sampling devices, I should specify, that allow us to collect sediment, allow us to visualize sediment on the sea floor, allow us to collect and analyze water from the deep waters as well as tools that are available shipboard to visualize natural seepage that may be occurring from the sea floor.
And with that, I’ll turn it back over to Janet.
Nancy MacKenzie: Thank you for taking my call. I have a question about seafood testing. Is it possible to get that answered?
Paul Zukunft: Go ahead, Nancy. I’ll answer that. This is Rear Admiral Zukunft. I’ll be happy to take that question.
Nancy MacKenzie: OK, I’ve actually been trying to get this answered for a while. When the shrimp are seafood tested, sensory and chemical analysis, do you know if that is with the shells on or off?
Paul Zukunft: That question I do not know. I do know it goes through a two-stage test, and the more elaborate test is when it goes through a GC-MS test.
Nancy MacKenzie: Right.
Paul Zukunft: For any presence of hydrocarbon that would, in all likelihood, test the shell and flesh. But I can’t say …
Nancy MacKenzie: Yes, I’m interested in that and whether they’re deveined or not.
Paul Zukunft: OK, best place to answer that would be …
Nancy MacKenzie: And I’ve really been trying to get that answered for three weeks, so …
Paul Zukunft: Or with the Food and Drug Administration.
Nancy MacKenzie: Yes, having difficulty there, so I was hoping that you’d be able to. But here’s one that you – that you all – probably more up your alley. If the protocol for reopening fishing areas is the evaluation of oil movement, oil in the water column, sheen on the water and the seafood assessment, why are so many square miles still closed? Does that mean that the seafood is tainted or there’s oil in the water?
Paul Zukunft: No, right now we’re waiting to get a representational sample for a number of fish species in those federal waters that remain closed. We do have a number of vessels that are out there with NOAA observers on there to actually catch those fish and then run those through the laboratory results. And so that is actually part of the process to get those areas reopened.
But the key part is having a representational sample. And as you realize, we did have 8,000 square miles that were just reopened on the 21st of September, and then also recreational fishing for red snapper was opened. There was allowable quota remaining for red snapper, so for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, starting on October 1st for the next eight-week period, that red snapper season will be opened for recreational fishing, not for commercial though.
Nancy MacKenzie: Right, right, OK, well just one last thing as long as we’re talking about it. On the e-mails that I get, it says that areas remain closed to balance economic and public health concerns, and I’m not sure exactly what that means.
Paul Zukunft: OK, you had broken up through part of that, did you …
Nancy MacKenzie: Oh, I’m sorry, it’s – the e-mails that I get, you know the by the numbers (sent) from the unified command, says that the areas remain closed due to balance economic and public health concerns. And I’m not exactly sure what that means.
Paul Zukunft: OK, yea, those areas were closed when there was oil in those areas, and that was due to the concern for public health if fish were to be caught from there, and should there be polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, found in the fish flesh. So that’s why there were closed.
And obviously we can close an area quite quickly to go through the requisite sampling protocols to then reopen it. It is a somewhat time-consuming process.
Nancy MacKenzie: Sure.
Paul Zukunft: So it is a process where we error on the side of caution.
Nancy MacKenzie: Sure.
Paul Zukunft: Anytime – you know the economic indicator there, if that fish is caught and, for whatever reason, it is not found to be in compliance, it could actually have a detrimental effect you know on the economic fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
So you probably heard on a number of a blogs – and it is – it is the most-sampled seafood anywhere in the face of the Earth. But again, if there’s going to be any error in this process, it will be on the side of caution. But again, I am working extremely closely with the NOAA Marine Fishery Service, who in turn works with the Food and Drug Administration on the sampling protocols that – to continue to reopen those closed areas. And they are gradually reopening.
Nancy MacKenzie: Thank you, I appreciate your time.
Paul Zukunft: OK, thank you.
Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Laura Parker with AOL News.
Laura Parker: Yes, I have a – sort of a big-picture question in terms of the total effort involving the – NOAA’s research. It was announced, I think it was last week, or in the last few days, that NOAA’s now embarking on a larger systematic effort to understand the oil in the water and sort out some of the differences between academic sciences and government scientists with regard to oil on the – on the sea floor and plume and so on.
Can you lay out how and when some of these particular issues may be resolved? Is this – is there sort of a map that you set out for how you’re going to get to the bottom of some of these things? Or will these be you know many months away?
Janet Baran: This is Janet Baran, (inaudible) many months away. So we already have – there’s two parts of it. There’s water and sediment. So the water sampling has been going on all summer. We have a team in place at unified area command that represents six different agencies that is an operational science advisory team. And they are analyzing all the data as it’s coming in to make recommendations of when we reach the – reach the end game of the response, not the restoration, not the long-term care of the Gulf.
And so the water sampling is mostly completed. But the analysis is still ongoing. The team is in place. They are looking at the data every day and trying to determine if there are gaps of what we need to infill or if we have completed and have an answer to the American public.
The second part is the sediment. And, as I said, the Gyre, the Ocean Veritas and the Pisces will be out doing the sediment sampling. And so it’s expected within the next couple weeks we will have all of the sediment samples, and that same team will be looking at what that tells us and if there needs to be additional sampling.
Much of the near shore sediment sampling is already completed, and the indicators we’re getting from there so far is a lack of presence of oil in the sediment.
Laura Parker: Have you – I mean, come – have you been able to resolve sort of the issue of the plume, for instance? We’ve got the – what the Berkeley Labs report versus the Woods Hole report …
Janet Baran: Sure.
Laura Parker: Or is there – has there just been a change from the date of the one and the date of the other?
Janet Baran: Sure, a lot of those were based in samples that were taken in June. And Dr. Chris Reddy, who was a part of the Woods Hole study, has – was the academic liaison at unified area command the last couple of weeks. And we have engaged with him and talked about what he found.
Our vessels were out there also, looking at all that. And those academic data have been included into the response database. So we’re looking at all of it in total.
Currently what we’re finding is that dilution has occurred. So over time, more and more water has mixed in. And also the microbes have continued to decrease the amount of oil that would be in that area. We’re finding less and less what we could consider (hits) and having to use more and more sophisticated instruments …
Laura Parker: I’m sorry, you broke up a little bit. Finding less and less …
Janet Baran: I would say any kind of – any kind of signal at all in the water column. And what we’re finding is that the concentrations are now in the parts of a billion. So we’re having to use more and more sophisticated instruments to even see if there is this dispersed oil cloud and that’s all.
Laura Parker: And what?
Janet Baran: That’s all.
Laura Parker: Oh, and what about the sediment on the sea? Because I’m sure you’re very well familiar with what Mandy Joye is finding at the University of Georgia, and I think she had something in her blog about it earlier in the month.
Janet Baran: That is correct. So Dr. Samuel Walker, who is also part of the subsurface monitoring team, he got in contact with Dr. Joye, and she has shared her locations, and we will be going and revisiting those. We want to ensure that we’re not just taking observations and doing – we want to make sure we’re doing a full analysis. And so this is part of why we are going and looking at where she has sampled.
Laura Parker: So in both of those instances of the plume and the oil on the floor, on the sea floor, you’re taking that – these other analyses into account and looking at them, but you guys have not – you’re not at the stage where you’ve reached any conclusion on either of them. Is that what you’re saying?
Janet Baran: I wouldn’t say that exactly. The sediment sampling we’ve only just initiated, so we have not gone to those sites yet. And the water sampling we have always been in (agreeance) with our academic partners that there was this layer in the water column. It still exists, however it is at much lower concentrations and continues to degrade over time.
David Valentine: This is Dave Valentine. I think I can follow up a little bit, having been involved in many of these discussions. With regard to the sediments, that’s really one of the primary targets of this upcoming cruise, and we have two tools that we are using to address this issue of whether or not there’s oil that has fallen into the sediments and is sitting there. We’re doing extensive coring operations with a sort of corer that preserves that interface very, very well.
Onboard, we have the (mastectrometers) that we need to quantify the amount of oil that may be there on the sediment surface. We also have a towed camera system that we’ll be deploying. We can tow it along the sea floor. It resides about nine to 15 feet above the sea floor and is dragged by the boat. That takes pictures of the sea floor, about 2,000 images for every five-hour deployment.
And with that, we are hoping to look for the distribution of oil, if there is oil on the sea floor, to help us understand exactly what the patterns of deposition of this oil may be, if it’s there, and we’ll follow up, then, with the coring to quantify how much is there in those areas.
Janet Baran: And also fingerprint – that’s the key here, too, is that we want to ensure chemically, if we do find oil, we need to check that it is MC252. There are plenty of natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico, which can cause oil to be found within sediment.
Laura Parker: Right. When is the Pisces coming back?
Janet Baran: The Pisces will be out until October 4.
Laura Parker: But you send this – you can send – you’re sending data in every day, is that correct?
Janet Baran: That is correct. We have a secure FTP site, and they’re – they will be uploading all of their analysis. There – some of the – there will be additional work done on samples in labs that take longer than what can be done here.
Laura Parker: And do you have a target date for when you’ll release your findings from this particular trip?
Janet Baran: Not at this time. We will continue to update – as we get results. Science, unfortunately, takes more time than we care to admit, and we want to make sure that we fully investigate this and have strong conclusions.
Laura Parker: And are you – in addition to – as things break down, are you looking at all of the things that are in the – in the – you know as they – the breakdown products that result from the breaking down of the oil? I’m wording that badly.
David Valentine: I guess I can take that to a certain – this is Dave Valentine. I can’t …
Laura Parker: There’s – do you need me to reword it? Because I’ve worded it badly, but I think you might get my point.
David Valentine: Yes, I do, and the compounds that are being analyzed for are the standard toxic compounds that are known in oil. And these include the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as well as other hydrocarbon components within oil.
The issue of breakdown products is a very tricky one, and it moves into the academic realm, which I’m always happy to talk about, because I’m a geochemist, and that’s what I do for a living. But it’s – you know it’s really insider talk, insider speak. A lot of it – and the bottom line is that – so the kinds of breakdown products that we’re talking about tend to be fairly low on concentration. These are intermediates or terminal products. And they’re not – they’re very difficult things to analyze, and they tend to be at very low concentration.
Personally, we are trying to look for those at very trace levels. That’s one of the things that my research entails. But it’s not, to my knowledge, part of the standard plan, because these compounds tend to be very, very low in concentration.
Russell Tippets: OK, can we get the next caller, please, to ensure everybody gets a question answered timely?
Operator: OK, and your next question comes from the line of (Laurie Wiegler).
(Laurie Wiegler): (Laurie Wiegler), thank you.
Hi, thank you very much for taking my call. If more oil is found, and we know that it will be, I’m curious what the next step is for NOAA. Is bioremediation a possibility? Do you just let it continue to disperse? What’s your game plan?
Paul Zukunft: Actually, in terms of the response, that’s – this is Admiral Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator. You know just bear in mind, right now what we’ve been detecting in that water column is parts per million and parts per billion. And actually, we had – we’re seeing more and more in the parts per billion, which lends itself to the fact that there is some natural biodegradation taking place in the Gulf of Mexico, which is actually quite common in a body of water that has a significant amount of natural seeps and hydrocarbons occurring naturally, plus the fact that this well is located in relative proximity to the outflow of the Mississippi River, which is also rich in nutrients.
So, again, the key part of this study that’s ongoing is to detect any significant amounts, beyond what we’ve seen so far, but we need to expand the scope of that monitoring effort. The preponderance of the sampling data right now has been in the water column. This next phase is very focused upon what’s in that sediment layer as well.
And then, depending on what we find from those – you know from the sampling and analytic data – at that point, we can then consider if in fact there is an appropriate response protocol to address that. But right now, that’s not one that I would make unilaterally. We have a regional response team that would actually share that data, and then they would ultimately provide me recommendations whether to use such intervention methods such as bioremediation.
(Laurie Wiegler): Thank you. May I just ask one more follow-up to that? Is Admiral Thad Allen no longer involved in this? And, would that change if you decided to have another effort there to, say with the bioremediation or for cleaning up any excess oil that’s found?
Paul Zukunft: Yes, Admiral Allen and I did a press conference yesterday where he announced that he will be retiring a week from today. I will continue in my role as federal on-scene coordinator, as I have for some time now. And the regional response team does provide these recommendations to the federal on-scene coordinator.
And at the same time, I also have direct access to all the interagency administrators and will assume that capacity from Admiral Allen as he goes into retirement, which certainly falls within my purview as the federal on-scene coordinator.
(Laurie Wiegler): OK, thank you, and I apologize for that. I was not on the call yesterday. Thank you.
Paul Zukunft: OK, you’re quite welcome. Actually, you know this was a local press conference.
(Laurie Wiegler): OK.
Paul Zukunft: So, no, you did not miss that.
(Laurie Wiegler): All right.
Paull Zukunft: But I am the one they call Admiral Z.
(Laurie Wiegler): OK, yes, I know who you are. Thank you.
Paul Zukunft: OK, thank you.
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