Scientists cannot find traces of oil in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico three years after the nation's worst offshore spill, but residual toxins are still in the sediment along the coastal marshes, according to scientists at the University of Tennessee who have studied the effects of the spill.
Bacteria in the Gulf was already adapted to consuming oil that naturally leaks from the ground into the water there, said Terry Hazen, a Governor's Chair for Environmental Biotechnology at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, dumping 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf, the population of that unique bacteria exploded and consumed the oil at a remarkable rate, said Hazen, who was a professor at University of California-Berkeley at the time.
"The Gulf has an amazing capacity to take care of these things, including a lot of other organics and things coming out of the Mississippi River," Hazen said. "I'm not saying that everything is hunky-dory but there is a lot of cleaning capacity there. Oil is a natural product, it's just fossilized algae. So the ability to degrade oil is always there in nature."
Hazen was part of a team of researchers that tracked the oil during and in the months following the spill. His team used a new approach to discover these oil-eating bacteria. Thanks to a contract UT has with BP, he is now leading a team that is examining other potential deep-sea drilling sites around the world looking for similar bacteria.
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