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Local scientists to join national consortium on dealing with Gulf oil spill

Groton - While oil continued to pour out of the ruptured BP well into the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday, three marine science professors from the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus readied themselves to join fellow experts from across the country for an emergency meeting to brainstorm short- and long-term spill cleanup and monitoring.

Meeting invitations went out over the weekend to UConn and 19 other universities for scientists to attend the meeting Thursday at Louisiana State University. The Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit comprising 94 research, educational and industry groups, organized the meeting, and three federal agencies - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy - are sponsors. Conclusions from the meeting will be used to advise the federal agencies in charge of the response.

"This is an opportunity to get people together for an objective approach to the problems," professor Penny Vlahos, an expert in ocean chemistry, said Tuesday afternoon after rearranging her schedule for the rest of the week before her flight this morning.

Also representing Avery Point will be professors James O'Donnell, an expert in physical oceanography, and Annelie Skoog, who researches the mixing of organic matter in the oceans.

The purpose of the meeting is to look beyond the immediate problem that has occupied most of the attention thus far - finding a way to stop the relentless gush of oil pouring out of the well - to the long-term challenge of what President Barack Obama on Tuesday called "the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history."

Vlahos, O'Donnell, Skoog and the other scientists will offer their best ideas about what will be needed to track the spilled oil, clean up the enormous mess it is making now and far into the future, and monitor its environmental and human health effects long-term.

"We have, essentially, an oil cloud at mid-depth that's growing in size that will be moved by the currents," Skoog said. "We need to know how far this oil will spread out."

One of the points Skoog plans to raise is the need to collect samples of the BP oil to "fingerprint" it for its unique chemical properties so that oil plumes can be traced to their correct source for accurate damage assessments. There is a significant amount of oil that leaks from the Gulf bottom naturally, she noted. Microorganisms that have evolved to feed on this oil keep it from fouling the water but cannot keep up with the volume gushing from the well, she added.

One of the most vexing challenges posed by this spill, Skoog noted, is that much of the spilled oil is not on the surface, where ample technology exists for cleanup, but hovering at mid-depth, where cleanup methods are largely untested.

"This is such a huge catastrophe, I want to help," she said. "If I can, it will be very rewarding."

Vlahos plans to offer her understanding of how oil can gasify and pollute the air with compounds that can be harmful to human and wildlife health. That, along with the oil in the water, she said, needs to be tracked, measured and monitored, and a response will need to be developed to minimize health effects.

The biggest danger, Vlahos said, would be if a large plume travels to a heavily populated coastal area, where the noxious gases from the spilled oil could sicken thousands.

"We don't want to be whiffing those fumes all day long," she said.

Other scientists will describe how currents and ocean circulation patterns will influence where the oil ultimately ends up, so that response plans can be put in place.

"Once we know where the plume is going, we're going to have to look at the ecology of those areas," Vlahos said. "We need to be asking the right questions, and knowing what the recovery times are for the different effects."

While NOAA has been conducting some data collection and monitoring since the spill, Vlahos said, the effort has not been systematic or well-organized for the purposes of long-term remediation and research. One of the key contributions of the meeting, she hopes, will be to establish those research and monitoring protocols and priorities that federal scientists will follow over the many years the cleanup and recovery effort will take.

"It'll be decades," she said.

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