Has the oil spill cleanup only scratched the surface?

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Top image shows oiled kelp on Refugio Beach, May 22. Bottom image shows beach after cleaning, June 3. Photos: Unified Command

The beaches look better.

But, many things look better on the surface.

Cal State Channel Islands professor Dr. Sean Anderson is concerned with where and how much oil exists underneath the ocean floor. He and his research team have been monitoring the conditions of the ocean long before the May 19th’s spill, and are now re-purposing their resources and data to pinpoint changes and effects. They’re currently busy placing a robot (open source remotely operated vehicle, specifically) onto the ocean floor.

Anderson hopes his Open ROV will help detect oil and tar on the ocean floor.

“We’ve been using this device to count fish in marine protected areas, check water quality and things like that. When the oil spill happened, we retooled it just slightly so we can see if we can detect any deposited oil or tar,” says Anderson.

Anderson says it can also act as a video record for impact quantification or legal purposes. He’d be happy to share the video data with interested parties, like those within the Unified Command.

Anderson says oil from this spill takes on various forms. First, there’s the gooey, sticky oil that covers and smothers rocks and wildlife. Then there’s the watery oil that may not fowl breathing tubes but will poison those that ingest it. The third type is the one he’s worried about, small traces of oil that could accrue chronic poisoning. “It’s like if we ingested a little bit of lead over time,” he says.

That sort of exposure can lead to slower growth rates and less reproduction of plants and animals.

“It’s much less likely to directly kill things by smothering them cause it’s not as gooey and sticky, but it’s also the stuff that persists longer, gets buried in the sand and doesn’t mobilize.”

Refugio oil spill response
An oiled brown pelican at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center. Photo: International Bird Rescue

As for sickly birds and mammals showing up along the coastline, Anderson says it’s still hard to say what’s directly related to the spill and what’s not. Changing ocean conditions have resulted in stranded sea lions all year, and raised awareness may also play a part in greater animal reporting.

“Are we seeing more [dead birds and mammals] because we all of a sudden have teams going across L.A. and Ventura and Santa Barbara County, or is it because these guys are actually getting poisoned?” asks Anderson.

Tar found in Santa Monica. Photo: Sean Anderson and his research team