Business & Economy

UWF faculty collect research samples in oil spill’s wake

University of West Florida faculty members from the university’s Center for Environmental Diagnostic and Bioremediation have begun local research into the potential impacts of the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana that began April 20.

Dr. Richard Snyder, biology professor and director of the CEDB, said water from offshore as well as sand from the beach are being analyzed for hydrocarbons and microbial DNA to create a baseline from which to monitor for signs of the oil’s arrival and the response of the microbial degraders. The teams are collecting beach sand at four locations and water at two locations along Santa Rosa Island twice a week. Additional samples will be taken on an offshore cruise aboard the R/V Bellows from the Florida Institute of Oceanography as part of an onboard training course for undergraduate and graduate students conducted by Will Patterson, associate professor in the UWF Biology Department and Snyder.

Snyder believes the Pensacola area will not suffer massive damage from the spill – based on careful review of the spill’s location, the gulf’s underwater geography, water current and wind patterns.

“We might see some evidence wash up on shore, but we are not going to see wildlife covered in raw crude oil,” he said. However, this year’s reproductive cycle of animal life in the Gulf covered by the spill will be severely impacted.

UWF research will indicate the oil’s presence long before any possible visual evidence could, especially now that surfactants are being used to dissolve the oil into the seawater.

As the oil flows with the current away from the spill site, it forms an emulsion with the seawater, a creating a frothy, brown substance. The use of dispersants may prevent the visible floating patches of that material, but it does not mean it has gone away. “Dissolving the oil into the water makes it more available to the bacteria which have to live in the water, but also exposes more biota (the combined flora and fauna in a given area) to the oil which can increase its environmental impact. Sometimes the dispersants are more toxic than the oil,” he said.

Evidence of the spill may also show up on beaches in the form of “tar balls.”

“Crude oil is a mixture of very light volatile substances and heavier tar-like substances and everything in between. The heavier stuff will sink and it can pool on the bottom around the spill site. Lighter stuff will float and the volatiles, about 35 to 40 percent of the oil in this case, mostly evaporate away and are also eaten by bacteria,” he said. “As the lighter stuff goes away, the floating patches become heavier and may sink, destined to become what people call ‘tar balls’ that can wash up on the beaches.”

The oil spill project is the type of research the center does on a regular basis. “We identify a situation of community or regional need and design our research to address it in a way that also makes the work valuable to and of sufficient quality for the international scientific community.”

Conducting the research is the CEDB’s core faculty: Joe Lepo, professor, who has extensive oil spill experience, Wade Jeffery, professor, and Jane Caffrey, associate professor, as well as students and staff members. Their project began Monday.

Patterson also has been out sampling in advance of any oil coming this way. His grant-supported work examines fish community structure and fishing mortality impacts on stocks of reef fishes. He uses a remotely operated video camera to unobtrusively collect types, numbers and sizes of fishes on artificial and natural reefs in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. He has made four trips to gather as much data as possible before any oil arrives.

Listen to Dr. Snyder’s interview with Sandra Averhart at WUWF 88.1 FM at Air/audio/Snyder Details Spill.wma.

By Susie Forrester, University Marketing Communications