Headline for Featured Item #1 Harte Research Institute Probes Effects of Dispersants, Three Years after Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
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Harte Research Institute Probes Effects of Dispersants, Three Years after Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

April 17, 2013


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Three years after the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon blowout that released nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists from the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) continue to look into the impact of the dispersants used.

Researchers say it was not just the sheer volume of oil that leaked from the well that made dealing with this unprecedented disaster’s aftermath unique; it was the location, almost a mile beneath the Gulf’s surface. They say the decision to use more than 1.8 million gallons of dispersants meant oil that would normally rise to the surface would remain suspended beneath the surface.

 “The nature of the leak and the use of dispersants at depth essentially turned the spill upside down,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, Director of the HRI.

The use of dispersants at depth was employed to keep as much oil out of highly-productive coastal waters and wetlands and to facilitate microbial breakdown of the oil.

During all previous spills, the oil rose to the surface and drifted with the wind, so modern oil spill response equipment and techniques have been designed to deal with that scenario. However in the case of Deepwater Horizon, plumes of oil drifted with currents at various depths, settled to the bottom or dispersed throughout the water column making the use of skimmer ships, floating booms and controlled burns less effective.

Dr. Wes Tunnell, HRI Associate Director and Endowed Chair of Biodiversity and Marine Conservation, studied the Ixtoc I oil spill from the southern Gulf of Mexico in 1979 and 1980 when it impacted Texas and Mexican coral reefs and beaches. In Texas, life in the sand of South Texas beaches recovered in only a few years. But in Mexico, Dr. Tunnell found remnants of tar as late as 2010.

To date, studies on the use of dispersants have not yet shed much light on this issue. Research funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GOMRI) are still underway and NRDA documents are not generally available for review as the court case to resolve damage claims has not yet been settled. Some environmental scientists have expressed that dispersants may have added to the dangers from the spill because currents picked them up and distributed them throughout the Gulf.

Dr. Paul Montagna, HRI Endowed Chair of Ecosystems and Modeling, is the technical lead for the nation’s assessment of the effects of the Deepwater Horizon blowout on deep-sea benthos communities. His work will be the basis for perhaps millions of dollars in restoration funding to address these impacts. 

“It is premature to invest heavily in dispersant strategies until all the evidence is in,” said  McKinney. “It may very well turn out that the use of dispersants to make the oil more available to microbial degradation is the best strategy. But we need to understand just what this may be doing to the deep Gulf. ”


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