Maine monitoring gulf oil spill

Posted May 18, 2010, at 9:51 p.m.

Scientists and state officials are watching closely as crews try to stop the gusher that is leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico and trying to assess whether any oil from the spill could reach Maine’s coastline.

“Obviously, there’s concern,” said George LaPointe, Maine commissioner for marine resources. “It’s a huge spill, and it’s ongoing. But we’re less at risk than other places.”

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also is monitoring the progress of the spill, according to Barbara Parker, director of the DEP’s Division of Response Services.

“We have been monitoring it on a daily basis,” Parker said Tuesday. “We’re keeping an eye on the triangulations that NOAA puts out on where the oil is day to day. It seems hard to believe that it could get all the way up here.”

It probably won’t, according to oceanographer Larry Mayer, a professor in the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences. And if it does, he said, it likely will be so diluted that it would not pose a danger to the Maine coast.

There is an “extremely low probability” that the oil spill will have an impact on Maine, Mayer said this week.

“In science we never say never,” he said, “but oil from the spill in amounts that would create ecological problems in the Gulf of Maine — I really doubt it.”

Oil has been leaking from an underwater well for more than three weeks, spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists this week said that oil from the spill could move into the warm gulf loop current which could carry it out of the Gulf of Mexico past the Florida Keys and into the Gulf Stream, where it could threaten sensitive wildlife areas and popular beaches along the Florida coast.

While many scientists don’t believe the oil would travel beyond Cape Canaveral before moving out to sea where it would be diluted, scientists along the U.S. East Coast are monitoring the oil’s movement.

Mayer said the path of the Gulf Stream would transport oil away from the Maine coast. The Gulf Stream heads north along the East Coast but veers east after reaching Cape Hatteras, N.C., and away from the Maine coast by as much as several hundred miles.

There is one complication, he said, that comes in the form of warm core rings — areas of turbulence along the edges of the Gulf Stream that break off from the main current and channel some Gulf Stream water toward the Gulf of Maine.

“Gulf Stream waters pinch off of the Gulf Stream and move onto the Continental Shelf,” said Huijie Xue a physical oceanographer at the University of Maine, “But they really are blocked by Georges Bank.”

Xue said those warm core rings do not enter the Gulf of Maine intact, but some of the Gulf Stream water does spin off the rings and into the Gulf of Maine.

She agreed, however, that the likelihood of oil causing a problem in Maine is slight.

“The possibility of oil coming all that distance is already very small,” she said. “The chances of it having an impact in Maine are almost nonexistent unless it [the spill] keeps going and going.”

Despite the unlikely migration of the gulf oil to Maine, Mayer said, the materials used to break up the large plumes of oil could make it easier for oil to move in the water.

“That’s a lot of oil in the sub-surface, and the concern is that it might have a better chance of getting into the Gulf of Maine,” he said. “We don’t have much experience with that.”

Mayer said he also was concerned about the composition of the dispersants and the effect they might have. He said some components appear to be proprietary information and have not been disclosed.

“I’d like to know what that stuff is,” he said.

Despite that concern, Mayer said the large amounts of water moving through the Gulf Stream would certainly dilute any oil transported north. The average person wouldn’t know it was there, he said.

If oil from the spill does arrive in Maine, the state would work with multiple partners to deal with the problem, according to Barbara Parker at DEP. She pointed out that in March, Maine hosted a “Spill of National Significance” exercise in Portland, which involved more than 50 federal and state agencies and private organizations that responded to a mock oil spill at sea.

The spill in the gulf is the first significant oil spill since that drill.

“In the event of an incident anywhere in New England, we would work with the Coast Guard and other state partners to figure the best response,” she said. “We have a good handle on the experience and expertise that’s available to us. The problem is that Mother Nature always wins, if she wants to. That’s the struggle that’s going on now in the gulf.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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