Magazine article Oceanus

Still Toxic after All These Years

Magazine article Oceanus

Still Toxic after All These Years

Article excerpt

Does oil spilled in 1969 still have impacts on wildlife? Ask a fiddler crab.

This is a story about persistence - of oil, and of people.

It began in 1969 when the barge Florida ran aground off Cape Cod, spilling 189,000 gallons of fuel. But it began for me in 2000, when Aubrey Hounshell just kept calling me and calling me, asking if he could come to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution during the summer to do some science.

He was a 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, with less-than-stellar grades, particularly in my field, chemistry. Still, there was something about him that reminded me of myself at that age: someone perhaps a little rough around the edges, whom people had taken a chance on and given a shot.

So I let Aubrey come as a summer guest student in my lab, to get a taste of science, to test-drive it to see whether he might want to pursue it. Maybe it was his persistence, a useful attribute in the scientific endeavor, which often winds down long pathways, hits temporary deadends, segues serendipitously, circles around, and occasionally leads to an unexpected destination. That's what happened in this case.

I confess to having second thoughts when Aubrey arrived in Woods Hole. He was sporting long hair, a black leather jacket, an array of tattoos, and mirrored sunglasses that covered half his face.

For his summer project, we dispatched Aubrey to the Wild Harbor salt marsh in West Falmouth, which had taken a savage hit from the 1969 Florida oil spill. In its aftermath, WHOI biologists and chemists had taken advantage of the unfortunate incident. They brought to bear a full suite of expertise and technology to document the devastation to plants and wildlife and to learn how natural ecosystems respond to uninvited guests such as oil. And they found, contrary to prevailing ideas, that oil persisted in marsh sediments years after it disappeared from the water and beaches. We thought it might be an interesting scientific project for Aubrey to see whether, three decades later, oil remained in Wild Harbor.

I asked George Hampson, one of the WHOI biologists who had conducted the original research on the 1969 spill, if he could give us advice. "I'll try to find some funding to pay for your time," I said. George scoffed at my offer, accompanied us to Wild Harbor, and pointed out several locations, saying, "Look in those places."

Aubrey took cores of marsh sediments and helped analyze them. He was proud to be an author on the scientific papers we published documenting our surprising finding: Oil from the 1969 spill resided in the marsh in 2000.

This finding inspired a cascade of intriguing questions: How much oil from the 1969 spill actually remained? Where was it most concentrated? Which particular chemical components of the oil remained? Were these components toxic to life? Had bacteria decomposed the oil? Since Aubrey's summer discovery, my research group and many colleagues, armed with some of the most advanced chemical instruments in the world, have attacked these questions.

With colleagues from the United States Coast Guard Academy, we employed comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography to determine that the remaining oil was not substantially weathered or biologically degraded, as we expected; in fact, it hadn't changed much since the mid-1970s when most of the work at this site stopped.

Emily Peacock, a Boston University Marine Program student and a WHOI guest student, took 26 additional cores over a wider area of Wild Harbor. We analyzed more than 150 oil samples. With Andy Solow, director of the WHOI Marine Policy Center, we developed a statistical model that helped fill in the gaps where we didn't sample and create a map identifying where oil most likely remained in Wild Harbor. The map was essential to calculating how much oil was left in the marsh - about 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Not much, but was it enough to still have impacts on the ecosystem? …

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