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Gulf Coast oil in Connecticut

July 31, 2010 7:27:16 AM PDT
Some of the oil from BP's catastrophic Deepwater Horizon well blowout has found its way to Connecticut.

No, it hasn't washed up any beach in the state. Rather, it's being delivered every day by FedEx trucks to the U.S. Coast Guard's Marine Safety Laboratory in New London.

It's the only lab in the nation that specializes in figuring out where oil came from when it's found in places it shouldn't be. And, in spite of the BP spill's astounding volume of crude, a lot of the oil found on Gulf of Mexico beaches is from other sources.

"You could gas up your car one day, and a week later stop at the very same gas station, and we could easily tell the difference between the gas you got in the two fill-ups, said Wayne Gronlund, who operates the laboratory. This is because crude oil - the source of gasoline, heating oil, lubricants, jet fuel and a million other products - has a chemical fingerprint that reveals precisely where it came from.

Crude oil is the fossilized remnant of vast forests that lived about 300 to 400 million years ago, which, under the heat and pressure of the Earth's crust, were gradually turned into the crude that we use today. As Gronlund explains, since each source of oil was formed from different types of plants, each underground pool of crude has its own unique signature.

"The structure of the oil molecule is similar to what the structure of the plant molecules were when they were alive," he said.

In Gronlund's lab, things like seaweed, water, sand, shells and so forth are viewed as "contaminants" that have to be separated from the unctuous samples to be analyzed. "Usually oil is thought of as a contaminant, but not here," he says.

The samples arrive packed in cardboard boxes that usually contain about a half-dozen or so small glass jars - like small jelly jars - all sealed with black plastic tape and marked with the locations where they were collected. Most of the tar-like clumps the lab examines were gathered from beaches. Some are from salt marshes and a few are from open water.

The first task faced by the 10 Coast Guard personnel who work in the lab is to create a "neat" sample, which is to say that the sample should only have oil in it. "We can't say that it's a `pure' sample because the oil is comprised of thousands of different hydrocarbons," he said. "To be `pure,' it would only have one compound."

The samples are treated like crime scene evidence. They're kept for years in a room-sized refrigerator, sometimes for more than two decades in cases where there's ongoing litigation. "We still have samples from the Exxon Valdez," Gronlund said, a reference to the 1989 spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Since April 20, when BP's Deepwater Horizon well blowout occurred, most of the samples handled by the Marine Safety Laboratory are at least suspected of coming from the Deepwater well. The staff has had to accomplish much of its analysis on a rush basis.

Central to the analysis work is a gas chromatograph analyzer, which gives Gronlund and his chief chemist, Kristy Juaire, a graphic picture of the different hydrocarbons in the sample.

At the beginning and end of each sample run, a reference sample of diesel fuel is analyzed to make sure the device is giving accurate results. The lab also has reference samples from the Deepwater well.

"We've had one shipment per day starting the 18th of May," Gronlund said. "One day, we got 17 boxes of samples."

On Tuesday, July 20, a half-dozen boxes arrived, each with several sample jars. Many of them, he said, are from places that are nowhere near the Deepwater Horizon blowout, such as Miami Beach and Cape Canaveral. Both of these cities are on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida. "The Deepwater oil has not shown up on those sites," he said. Some of the samples that the lab receives have no oil in them at all.

One recent box of samples arrived from North Carolina, where there is "no way" that Deepwater crude could have washed up. Still, he said that states and municipalities are understandably nervous about the BP spill.

There are about 3,800 active oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico, but as Gronlund points out, the Deepwater well was, true to its name, one of the very deepest. The well was drilled 5,000 feet beneath the ocean surface.

Tar balls are ubiquitous on all Gulf beaches. Some are caused by natural seepage from the ocean floor. Others are from leaks and discharges from ships and other oil wells.

The spilled BP crude has a consistency somewhere between maple syrup and water, Gronlund says. It's transformed into tar balls in the ocean, and by nearshore wave action, after its lighter, more volatile components evaporate. Some of the crude arrives on shore in its liquid state, too.

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