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Storm runoff pokes south into the gulf

Scientists begin taking samples to study whether fishing grounds remain safe as a toxic brew flows farther.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 15, 2005

From space, a plume of sediment from the Mississippi Delta into the Gulf of Mexico is always visible.

Rich in dissolved nutrients and plant matter, the plume's browns and greens stand out against the surrounding dark blue waters of the gulf.

Since Hurricane Katrina struck, the plume has been fed by receding storm surge from devastated gulf states.

From the air, it still looks the same.

But some scientists and regulators worry that the plume is now carrying toxic substances harmful to marine life and people.

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, said Katrina flooded dozens of Superfund and toxic waste sites. The water also washed over landfills, hazardous waste storage facilities and fuel depots, he said.

All of that is now returning to the gulf.

"It makes Love Canal look like a fly compared to the elephant of contamination that is now in that region," Kaufman said.

On Monday, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration sent a vessel into the plume. The 187-foot Nancy Foster , in addition to a crew of scientists, took along 20 body bags, just in case it comes across victims of Katrina.

Between now and Friday when the vessel returns to port in Pensacola, its crew will travel through the plume, taking bottom and water samples. Marine life will be caught and frozen for further examination of contamination.

Oceanographer Mitch Roffer, owner of a Miami firm that uses environmental data from satellites to locate catches for commercial fisherman and weekend anglers, thinks more than a single voyage will be needed to assess the plume's threat.

"What's in the leading edge of this water?" said Roffer. "Nobody knows. It's critical to get out there now and see."

Oceanographers say most of the toxic brew will cling to the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts. The portion that finds its way out into the gulf will be greatly diluted if it ever reaches the Florida Peninsula and the state's fishing grounds, they say.

But those same scientists agree that certain chemicals likely to be found in the plume are poisonous even in low concentrations and could endanger Florida's exhausted marine ecosystem. They also acknowledge uncertainty about what a catastrophic storm like Katrina could introduce into the plume.

"We have no experience with these kinds of things," said Frank Muller-Karger, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida. "There are a lot of people that are concerned. We don't want any surprises."

A finger of the plume that extends south into the gulf is of particular concern. Both Muller-Karger and Roffer said the finger could be swept into a powerful current that loops through the gulf and heads toward the Florida Keys and vulnerable coral reefs.

Peter Ortner, chief scientist at the NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, is overseeing the Nancy Foster 's trip into the plume.

In addition to the testing this week, Ortner said he hoped to soon place buoys along the plume's leading edge. The buoys will send out signals, allowing the movement of the water to be monitored closely.

Already, the Commerce Department has announced a "fishery failure" for the Gulf Coast from the Florida Keys to the Texas border, a declaration that frees up federal aid for the fishing industry. Ortner said part of the Nancy Foster 's work will be assessing whether any fishing grounds need to be declared off-limits.

"It is an open question at present whether there has been contamination of areas that must be closed," Ortner said.

A complete determination of the plume's possible impact will take months of study, said Ortner, and he has requested an additional vessel and other resources to complete an assessment.

Roffer, too, sees the need for extensive tracking and study of the plume. It's quite likely, he said, that what is now present is relatively clean compared to what the plume may carry in coming weeks.

"This is the initial wash," he said. "It should not be considered a one-time event."

--Will Van Sant can be reached at 727 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 15, 2005, 04:47:15]


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