Oil that dispersed in the Gulf of Mexico is still out there, coating deep-water spawning grounds and potentially resurfacing on Panhandle beaches, University of South Florida researchers say.
The findings contradict federal studies, which said oil that spilled after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon blowout had largely dissipated.
Now a coalition of Gulf community activists, scientists and philanthropists are saying the federal government and BP are misrepresenting the amount of oil left to be cleaned up in the Gulf of Mexico and the safety of eating seafood from the region.
A group call the Gulf Coast Fund says more than 53 million gallons of oil remain to be cleaned up out of 172 million gallons that spilled from the ruptured BP well.
"Just because the oil is no longer on the surface, it does not indicate that the area is healthy," Wilma Subra, a chemist and microbiologist and adviser to the fund, said in a press release.
Scientists no longer believe an Aug. 4 federal report that claims only about a quarter of the 4.9 million barrels of oil that leaked from the BP well remains to be cleaned up.
"Commercial fishermen in the Gulf know the seafood is unsafe for eating and will not feed it to their own families," Mississippi community organizer Derrick Evans said in the funds press release.
USF researchers say oil from the BP disaster may have settled on the floor of an ocean canyon only 40 miles from the Florida Panhandle -- farther east than original estimates.
News of the new report is just filtering down to coastal residents and business owners.
"It looks as if we'll never get over this oil spill," said Sandra Cummings, owner of the Seafarer's Pride restaurant on Panama City Beach. "At least, not in my lifetime.
"We have relatives in the United Kingdom who think all we're doing is conning BP for money. I wish they would come over here and really see how it feels when we have to close down a business it's taken so many years to establish."
The movement of the oil, driven by chemical dispersants, could wreak environmental havoc on the sea bed, John Paul, a USF marine microbiologist, told CNN Tuesday.
"The dispersant is moving the oil down out of the surface and into the deeper waters, where it can affect phytoplankton and other marine life," Paul said.
Paul and a dozen other USF scientists aboard the Weatherbird II research vessel detected oil droplets settling in DeSoto Canyon, a spawning ground for fish.
The USF findings echo University of Georgia researchers, who announced Monday that "70 to 79 percent" of the spilled oil and its toxic byproducts are still present under the surface of the Gulf.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week that only 26 percent of the spilled crude remains in Gulf waters. The rest, NOAA said, had been collected, dispersed, naturally evaporated or dissolved.
"One major misconception is that oil that has dissolved into water is gone and, therefore, harmless," UGA marine scientist Charles Hopkinson told the Wall Street Journal. "The oil is still out there, and it will likely take years to completely degrade."
The sobering news surfaced just days after President Barack Obama's family visit to Panama City, where no oil was detected on local beaches.
Before and after that visit, however, lab tests aboard USF's Weatherbird II determined that phytoplankton, micrscopic pieces of the Gulf's food chain, exhibited a "strong toxic response" to the presence of oil.
The USF team's 10-day study of underwater plumes of oil illustrates national Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen's description of the spill as "omni-directional" and "multidimensional."
USF researchers hope further lab tests, now under way, will help gauge the scope of the problem, as well as determining if and when oil might resurface.
Meantime, USF scientists say they have found tiny tar balls and layers of oil up to a foot below the surface of beaches that appear "clean."
Such discoveries prompted Adm. Allen to warn Gulf communities: "I think you're going to be dealing with periodic oiling of the beaches for some time to come."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.