Journalism in the Public Interest

Scientists Allege Federal Gov’t Tried to Muffle Plume Findings


USF marine sciences dean William Hogarth said he was criticized by federal agencies when he announced the discovery of undersea oil.

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.

The Food and Drug Administration has continued to assure American consumers that Gulf seafood caught within reopened fishing areas is being tested and is safe.

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.”

Craig Pittman

Aug. 10, 2010, 2:42 p.m.

The first report about droplets of oil being found in the larvae of blue crabs and fiddler crabs came out more than a month ago, on July 1. That report said the droplets were found in crab larvaey sampled from Louisiana to Pensacola, Fla.—in other words, all across the coast impacted by Deepwater Horizon. Here’s the story from the Biloxi Sun-Herald:

I am not a scientist. I trust ProPublica’s reporting. I however do not trust our Gov’t and its agencies nor the Corporation’s responsible for the spill. An oil spill that went on for so many days common sense tells me that more oil is out there. The oil simply can’t have disappeared entirely.

Have you noticed how quickly the Government has aided BP in silencing the on-going disaster?

To me this is yet another example where Corporation’s, in this BP, is allowed to drive oversight instead of the government we the people elected.

Funny how they never could figure out how much oil was gushing even though they could extrapolate to a pretty good estimation if they wanted to, but all of a sudden they now know that 75% of an amount they never knew is gone and 25% is degrading quickly. Sure I believe it, don’t you?

simon macarthur

Aug. 10, 2010, 5:13 p.m.

We don’t matter. That’s what I derive from this disaster. Ordinary people are going to be left to fend for themselves. We are living in a corporatocracy and Obama is every bit the shill for big money that Bush was. His “change” is missing along with the oil that BP dumped into Gulf.

Consider the amount of time it took to plug the hole and the range of surface the oil covered. Compare that to the much smaller Valdez spill. How long did it take to clean up the Valdez? Is it logical to think a larger quantity of oil can disappear faster than a smaller amount? I trust my mind over the spin.

I read a similar story weeks ago (don’t remember where) about what happened at NOAA, and how they themselves were pressured by the government to change their conclusions.

The government needs to provide the scientific data to support their assessment.  Scientist or no scientist, the public understands what goes in must come out.  A mass balance on the oil and dispersants must be done and presented….

Tom Sambola

Aug. 12, 2010, 9 a.m.

The oil has not disappeared! The headlines are simply misleading in every way. You may not see a large mass of oil floating on the surface but go to Orange Beach and you can see for yourself what my wife and I experienced just last weekend. Yes, Oil!
Oil in the air!
Oil in the sand!
Oil in the water along the shoreline!
And Yes, Oil on the Shells washing up along the beach.
Unless you are blind, have no ability to feel or touch,
Can’t smell, there is oil everywhere. What grieves me the most is that this oil has to be on the sea life whether it is crabs, fish, shrimp, and/or birds. My wife and I tried to wash the shells off in the water, boil them in hot water…all to no avail.
So don’t ask me where did all the oil go?
My wife and I love the beach but it will be along time before I had south to the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi,  Alabama, and western Florida. I feel for the businesses along the coast but I can’t financially support them put my family at risk for health issues in the future.

Tom Sambolo,

Your first hand experience is evidence that what we believe is based in common sense and truth. Thanks for reporting the situation.

Obama’s campaign slogan #10:
10. “I’m asking you to believe.  Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington. I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

Whatever that means….

Another government/corporate cover up!
Thank god we have unbiased scientists and media organizations like ProPublica to get the truth out.

Oceana is preparing a ninety day scientific cruise of the gulf. They are accepting donations from the public at their web site

Commenting is not available in this section entry.
This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Gulf Oil Spill

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has had untold health, economic and environmental effects.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories