When news first spread about the huge plumes of dispersed oil discovered by scientists in the deep waters of the Gulf, the federal government’s reaction was to criticize the media’s reporting. Here’s the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on May 17:
Media reports related to the research work conducted aboard the R/V Pelican included information that was misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate.
Now, scientists behind some of the plume research have spoken out about what went on behind the scenes with the federal agencies that sponsored their research. The St. Petersburg Times relays this from one scientist at the University of South Florida:
"I got lambasted by the Coast Guard and NOAA when we said there was undersea oil," USF marine sciences dean William Hogarth said. Some officials even told him to retract USF's public announcement, he said, comparing it to being "beat up" by federal officials. [Update 8/13: Hogarth later backtracked a bit, telling the Washington Post: "I don't ever remember being told not to" talk about the findings. It sort of caught [NOAA] by surprise, and they would...have liked to have a discussion of it" before the news was released.]
Scientists on another team, from another university, had a similar experience when they reported their plume findings.
“We expected that NOAA would be pleased because we found something very, very interesting,” Vernon Asper, an oceanographer at the University of Southern Mississippi, told the Times. “NOAA instead responded by trying to discredit us. It was just a shock to us. … [NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco] basically called us inept idiots."
The Coast Guard did not comment, but Lubchenco told the Times, “What we asked for, was for people to stop speculating before they had a chance to analyze what they were finding.” She also said that her agency was working smoothly with these universities to better understand the after-effects and long-term impact of the spill. (NOAA confirmed the existence of plumes about a month later.)
Scientists, however, say that they’re still waiting for NOAA to either give them a shared analysis or return the oil plume samples, which were taken for use “in an eventual court case against BP and other oil companies involved in the disaster,” the Times reported. A NOAA scientist said he was “sure we will release the data” at some point, but that he is “not sure where they are” because so much sampling has been done.
The messages from scientists and the government continued to differ in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press story published today cites several scientists analyzing oil-contaminated crab larvae. It’s unclear from the report where exactly the larvae were found—and whether that area was open or closed to fishing at the time—but the scientists said their findings provided evidence that oil was entering the Gulf food chain and could have long-term effects on marine life and seafood.
In recent weeks, many scientists have also criticized or expressed skepticism about a rosy report from NOAA announcing that most of the oil BP spilled into the Gulf is gone. A quick compilation of reactions:
“These are just what we call WAGs — wild-a-- guesses,” Rick Steiner a retired University of Alaska professor, told the Times.
“I'm suspect if that's accurate or not,” Ronald Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, told McClatchy Newspapers.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in these figures,” Lousiana State University professor James H. Cowan Jr. told McClatchy.
“If an academic scientist put something like this out there, it would get torpedoed into a billion pieces,” Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, a leading scientist on this spill, told The New York Times.
"This is a shaky report. The more I read it, the less satisfied I am with the thoroughness of the presentation. … There's some science here, but mostly, it's spin,” Florida State University professor Ian MacDonald told The Associated Press.
Some in the scientific community did find the report plausible. Louisiana State University emeritus professor Ed Overton peer-reviewed the report and told the AP he thought it was mostly good work, though he was uncomfortable with the precise percentages about the amount of oil left in the Gulf. And Jeffrey Short, a former federal scientist who works with the environmental group Oceana, told The New York Times that the estimates “are better than nothing, and probably not very far off.”