Vernon Asper clicks a button in a darkened room. Up comes a slide showing three transparent cylinders, each containing soil from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. We are sitting around a polished conference table — six state legislators, a local BP official, and myself — at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Kiln, Mississippi, just over the state line from Louisiana. Asper, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, is unveiling some of the latest research into the question: What happened to the oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

To hear some tell it, the pollution is gone. Two weeks ago, the New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted federal officials saying there was little recoverable oil left in the Gulf of Mexico, either on the surface, in the water column, or in the sediment at the bottom. Asper, who works out of the NASA facility, agrees that bacteria are doing their job and consuming much of the crude released by the spill.

“Oil, in proper doses, is actually a nutrient in the Gulf of Mexico,” he tells us. “It feeds the ecosystem.”

The sea floor is a different story.

Asper specializes in particle dynamics in the ocean. Observations of the Gulf after the spill showed that some oil was sinking, so he and his colleagues wanted to find out whether it was reaching the sea floor. They used BP funds to buy a “multicorer,” which Asper called “the ultimate device” for obtaining underwater soil samples. “You get the best samples you can imagine,” Asper says.

The samples we’re viewing were taken by Asper’s colleague Samantha “Mandy” Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. In the first cylinder, taken 140 nautical miles from the Macondo well (the site of the blowout), the soil looks uniform in color. “What you see is mud,” Asper says. The second sample, removed from an intermediate location near Gulfport, Mississippi, has a thin dark layer that tested positive for oil. But it’s the third, taken just 16 nautical miles from the site, that looks most dramatically striped. At the bottom is old mud. In the middle is “presumably” a layer of oil. And on top sits a two-inch-thick layer of what Asper calls “slime snot” made up (again, presumably) of oil and the bacteria feeding on it.

“Anywhere you go within about 50 miles of the well, you find this,” Asper tells us. “We’re getting this analyzed to see exactly what kind of products are in there. Until we know that, we can’t absolutely say that it’s oil. But it sure looks like oil, it smells like oil, and it is not found great distances from the well site.”

It also appears to be unique. Asper shows another slide, this one from a natural seep in the Gulf of Mexico’s Green Canyon. The “flocculent, gooey, whatever-it-is” so visible in the Macondo sample is not present in the Green Canyon one. This two-inch layer, he says, “is something we have not seen before.

“The question is: Where did the oil go? At least some of it went down here. Was it a lot? We don’t know yet.” The analyses of Joye’s samples should be back “any minute,” he says, and the University of Southern Mississippi has collected additional underwater soil of its own. But the tests cost $1,000 per sample, and there are issues with funding and laboratory backlogs.

What do these preliminary findings mean for underwater life? “Let’s suppose you’re a worm down here, and you make a living sticking your head up through the mud and feeding,” Asper says. “Now you’ve got two inches of goo on top of you. You’re going to have a real hard time surviving. And not only that: the worms help to oxygenate this sediment. With this stuff, whatever it is, on top, it’s going to be really hard to get oxygen into the sediments. So this could be potentially a large area of very serious impact.”

That worm’s fate could have ripple effects up the food chain, too, starving “the deep-diving things that feed on deep organisms. Sperm whales dive really, really deep, and they’re eating squid and whatnot. All kinds of fish dive way down there and graze. Any time you affect part of the ecosystem, it’s definitely going to have an effect throughout the ecosystem.”

It will still take time, though, to find out exactly what that effect might be. Asper’s willing to devote the next part of his professional life to studying “slime snot” — he just needs the funding. “In my opinion,” Asper says, “this is what we desperately need to be studying: finding out how that got there, what’s going to become of it, and what impact there is.”

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