FSU, Pensacola High School Use BP Oil Spill As Learning Opportunity

Apr 20, 2015

This oil patty found its way into a bivalve.
Credit Brittany Pace / DEEP-C Consortium

Five years ago, an oil well owned by BP exploded off the Louisiana Coast spilling millions of gallons of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico. It fouled waters, killed animals and destroyed delicate ecosystems. Florida’s coast line was largely spared from ecological damage, but beneath the pale blue waters of the Gulf, evidence remains. And now, the disaster is being used as a learning experience.

It’s a crisp February day and several groups of students are peeping into the clear blue waters off Pensacola’s Naval Air Station.  They’re from Pensacola’s Booker T. Washington High School AP environmental science class. And they’re mining the sand and waters to find what at first glance, appear to be black paddies of clumped sand, but on closer examination, it's a sea hare--an aquatic slug.

But Booker T. Washington High School Senior Jake Hernon says his group is definitely finding oil.

"We’ve found plenty of oil samples, and we've already filled up all our jars."

And 17-year-old Taylor Daniel says the crude is pretty easy to spot.

“You can tell it’s a rusty color. It’s like a dark brown, shiny in it. It looks oily and clumped together. It's different from a piece of wood or peat on the beach."

 “I suppose it’s one thing in a classroom to talk about the oil spill, and talk about how prevalent the effects from that still are," says Kevin Turner, the AP Environmental Science teacher. Booker T.  Washington.

The high school teamed up with Florida State University researchers and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for “Project Goo” which helps identify what oil lies under the waters.

“I think it's a lot more  important for them just to come out and see how this is working, and really be a part of the group doing the collections, and putting their stamp on it.” 

The students are trying to determine whether its BP oil they’re finding, or oil that’s naturally occurring. There’s a lot of it under Pensacola’s iconic white-sand beaches. For the past year and a half, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring Pensacola Beaches for oil. A lot of what they’ve found did come from BP—but not everything. DEP stopped its monitoring efforts in December, citing less oil being found.  

Ryan Klausch, works with AmeriCorps and the U.S. Navy on environmental projects. He says since DEP has stopped monitoring, he’s working with groups to get volunteers, like the Booker T. Washington students, to keep going.

“There was a lot of oil at first of course, from the BP Oil Spill. You guys allknow what happened. Over time, we’ve collected less and less. At this point we’re still collecting some, but it’s nowhere near the amount we originally had. And so it’s nice to see the decline in oil coming in. It’s really nice to see the progress we’ve had.”

One of the biggest mysteries from the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, continues to be what happened to all that oil? In February, FSU Researcher Jeff Chanton published a study addressing that question. He says up to 10 million gallons of BP oil, now rests on the ocean floor. That’s about 5 percent of the total amount of oil that came out of the wellhead.

WUWF's Sandra Averhart contributed to this report.