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Scientists lack oil to study BP spill

Louisiana State University biology professor Andrew Whitehead collects samples for research into the effects of the BP oil spill.

Jeremy Hobson: Today is the deadline for victims of the BP oil spill to head to court and keep their right to sue companies involved in the spill. It's also one year to the day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and leaked about five million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

But as Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports, many scientists still don't have samples of that oil to help them measure the impact.


Eve Troeh: When the rig exploded, LSU biologist Andrew Whitehead realized he needed to get samples -- fast.

Andrew Whitehead: Before the oil got there. And it's actually very rare to have before-event data.

He used his own credit card to bankroll several trips to the marshy coast. He took samples of the water, and collected research subjects.

Whitehead: That's a Gulf killifish, Fundulus grandis.

His lab tanks are full of the shiny little fish. How they reproduce long-term could say a lot about the spill.

Whitehead: The limiting factor is not getting the fish, it's getting the oil.

Whitehead's been asking for 20 gallons of light, sweet crude from BP for eight months. BP did give oil to some labs. But then came an order from a federal judge, says BP lawyer Nathan Block. It said, preserve all tangible evidence.

Nathan Block: Which of course obviously oil fell under the definition of tangible things.

Captured oil went into airtight stainless steel containers that had to be refrigerated in a safe place.

Block: So it has taken a while, a fair amount of effort, and several million dollars to get that infrastructure set up.

Block says opening the containers too many times for samples could compromise the evidence. As an alternative, BP just identified another oil well that's chemically close to the oil spilled last year. Professor Andrew Whitehead said he'd take 20 gallons of that, and got a letter saying:

Whitehead: It's gonna take eight weeks to ship me the oil. That's disabling.

Because his research is up for review this summer. Normally, he'd have preliminary findings to lock in more funding. It looks like he'll have nothing to show.

Whitehead: My ability to hire people to do the work, to pay students, to pay technicians is delayed.

He says there are also delays dispensing the half-billion dollars that BP set aside for research. That means some scientists will simply have to switch gears.

Whitehead: Labs are going to move on. A lot of good research is not going to get done.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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