Baseline samples in deep freeze

by Michelle Saxton
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gulf oil spill anniversary April 20

Local and state biologists say they have not had to test baseline samples taken after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that occurred one year ago on
April 20, 2010.

Last summer scientists at the University of North Carolina Wilmington began collecting samples from Holden Beach, Bald Head Island, Topsail Island and Bogue Banks at Atlantic Beach through the North Carolina Sea Grant, Larry Cahoon, a professor of biology and marine biology, said Thursday, April 7.

"That was based on the concern that oil might get here," Cahoon said. "And if it did, we needed to have some way to judge what impacts it might have."

Cahoon added, "At that point we knew from all prior surveillance none of that oil had gotten out of the Gulf yet. There were occasional reports of tar balls."

But Cahoon said no hard evidence indicated that oil traveled up the coast past Florida.

"The thing that saved us again and didn’t save the Gulf was that the Gulf loop current actually formed a gyre," Cahoon said, so the water in the Gulf just went around and around, keeping the oil trapped in the northern part of the Gulf.

Other, smaller oil spills do occur, he said.

"In the event of any spill that hits North Carolina beaches, we’ve got baseline samples," Cahoon said. "We know what was there before anything else happened. That comes in handy."

It is rare to have such samples before an event, he said.

"Nobody predicts these things – you can’t," Cahoon said. "Was the environment already trashed before this spill occurred? Or was it absolutely clean? Or was it in between? And the answer is usually, ‘I don’t know.’ We’ve got them."

Collected samples are in deep freeze now, and none have been analyzed at this time.

Meanwhile, researchers plan to collect samples from more sites this spring, from the Outer Banks, in the Ocracoke and Hatteras island areas, Cahoon said.

Samples include water, sediment and some marine life, and the samples are piggy-backed on a bigger study about beach renourishment effects, Cahoon said.

Following an explosion that occurred at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig in which 11 people were killed while they were working on an exploration well, cleanup efforts took about
87 days before the well was sealed. The shores of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi were most affected, BP’s website stated.

North Carolina also began collecting baseline samples last summer in case the state would see any impact from the oil spill and want to conduct tests.

The state Division of Marine Fisheries and Division of Environmental Health collected samples of fish and shellfish last summer to use for baseline background comparisons on harvested seafood, Marine Fisheries spokeswoman Patricia Smith said. The samples have not been tested but are locked in a freezer in Morehead City and still available for testing if needed, Smith said in an email, Tuesday,
April 12.

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