Brown material, seen here on the seabed near Ft. Morgan, Ala., during the first week in August 2010, is not oil, scientists have determined. Press-Register / Ben Raines

By Ben Raines, Press-Register
Sunday, August 22, 2010, 5:30 AM    

Scientists are intrigued by the heavy sheen and persistent clouds of dingy brown water washing up in pockets from Perdido Pass to Petit Bois Island since July.

Waves carrying the brown water ashore leave a conspicuous amber stain on the white sand. A recent snorkeling trip along Fort Morgan found the bottom just offshore covered in a fine layer of brown residue.

The residue is not oil, according to chemical analysis. But it probably used to be.

Puzzled by samples collected by the Press-Register since July, Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University scientist conducting oil analysis for the federal government, sent two researchers to accompany the newspaper to areas where the brown material was coming ashore in early August. Water and residue samples were collected from the tip of Dauphin Island to about five miles down the Ft. Morgan peninsula.

“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s got some hydrocarbons in it, but it does not match the oil from the Deepwater Horizon,” Overton said, adding that he has received samples collected by federal officials in other places that appear similar. “I have to think it is biological in origin.” …

Overton said he believes that the brown material is likely plankton that ate bacteria that has been consuming some of the oil floating in the Gulf.

“I would call it the biological products that result when microbes degrade oil. That’s a guess on my part. I’ve never seen globs like that in anything,” Overton said. “When the bacteria eat the oil, they multiply. Of course, that’s food for the plankton.” …

“There was so much oil out there. It didn’t all go away. It has to get converted into something. This stuff is similar to the oils associated with seaweed or the plant privet.”

Overton said that the chemical signature of the material was “unprecedented” in his decades of oil analysis. “Never seen anything quite like it,” he said. … 

Material washing ashore from Perdido Pass to Petit Bois Island not oil, scientists say

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