Gulf oil dispersants 'lesser of two evils'

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June 7, 2010, 7:51 pm
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(NECN: Lauren Collins, Manchester, N.H.) -  Understanding, containing and lessening the impact of the gulf oil spill is a constantly shifting puzzle.

"You have to currently be evaluating the tradeoffs because things change," says Dr. Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Costal Response Research Center at UNH, which specializes in oil spill response and restoration.  She's just back from Louisiana where she and dozens of other scientists from around the world weighed in on the use of dispersants to help protect the gulf coast's sensitive and expansive marshlands.

"Dispersant use to this point has been less environmentally harmful than letting the oil go into the marshes."

Dispersants are chemicals that break oil plumes or slicks down into miniscule droplets that disperse into the water where they're naturally attacked by microbes.

"That doesn't mean it's good it means it's the lesser of the evils," she says. 

Under the surface, Dr. Tom Weber of UNH's center for coastal mapping has been searching for deep oil plumes believed to be escaping from the deepwater horizon well. 

"Our main objective was for us to see, could we find those and if we can find them, can we map it out," he says. 

Dr. Weber was on a NOAA boat for eight days about fifty miles off the Louisiana coast. His team collected data through acoustic mapping and deep-water sampling.

"We're looking for things that are unusual and we're basically out there questioning everything that we see. Should we expect to be seeing this?  Is it behaving the way we expect?" 

It will be a while before those questions are answered and the underwater picture becomes clear.  Likewise, Dr. Kinner says it's impossible to tell how long the battle to protect the ecosystems both in the water and on the shore will last, because "we don't even know when the well will be contained so we don't know the total mass of oil that will go into the water."

She testifies in Washington Wednesday in support of funding for research on oil spill response - research that, until now, looked largely at hypothetical disasters. 

Tags: Lauren Collins, Gulf oil spill, Nancy Kinner, dispersants
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