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Report: Government tried to squelch reports of "plumes"

The St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday reported that federal officials had sent the message "shut up" to the Florida researchers who first reported "plumes" of underwater oil in the gulf. An academic leader quoted in the story downplayed the incident in an interview with the Washington Post, though he acknowledged that one agency had asked his university to retract the announcement of the findings.

The Times story said that message was delivered around late May to scientists at the University of South Florida.

Those scientists had reported finding indications of large amounts of oil below the surface--an unusual thing for an oil spill, since crude is supposed to float. The Times story says that, after the university announced these findings, the scientists were told by the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to (in the Times' words) "shut up."

In particular, the Times story said, "officials" told USF Marine Science Dean William T. Hogarth to retract the university's announcement.

But, in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Post, Hogarth offered a less dramatic account of the event. Hogarth said one agency had, indeed, asked him to retract the school's announcement. But he wouldn't say which agency--other than to say it wasn't NOAA.

"I'm not going to answer it [the question about which agency]. I don't think it accomplishes anything to help the American" public, Hogarth said. The statement was not retracted.

NOAA, one of the most important federal agencies studying the spill, remained skeptical of the idea of underwater "plumes" after several academic scientists reported finding them. But Hogarth said NOAA never told him to stop talking about his findings--he said they were mainly mad because they had to find out through the news media.

"I don't ever remember being told not to" talk about the findings, Hogarth said. "It sort of caught them by surprise, and they would...have liked to have a discussion of it" before the news was released, he said.

Hogarth said he had met with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco on Monday, and that the school and the federal agency now had a great working relationship.

"All that's past, in my opinion," he said of their disagreement over the sub-sea oil. "I think it's very productive to learn from the experience that we've had the last 100 days, and really try to move forward."

Last week, NOAA helped prepare a report that said about 74 percent of the oil is either gone or on its way to disappearing. That report contained a kind of admission that the scientists who first reported undersea oil were right: the federal government said that about a quarter of the oil, at least, was dispersed below the water.

In an interview Tuesday, Lubchenco said that "we in no way have muzzled anybody, We've never told people what they could or couldn't say."

In the case of the USF researchers, Lubchenco said, NOAA questioned if they were talking about undersea "plumes" before they were sure what they had found was oil. "When the research scientists returned from their expedition...and started talking about what they were finding, we talked to them about the importance of doing the proper analyses, so that the information that was being transmitted was accurate."
In the end, Lubchenco said, further tests showed that the USF researchers really had found oil.

But she said that the word "plume" had given the public the wrong impression: what was under the surface was really highly diluted oil droplets, not thick black concentrations of crude. NOAA prefers to call them "clouds," instead of plumes.


David A. Fahrenthold

 |  August 10, 2010; 3:37 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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