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Oil and Coastal Plants

Graduate students Aaron Gwinnup (left) and Elliott Beenk hope to learn how coastal plants react to oil.

Graduate students Aaron Gwinnup (left) and Elliott Beenk hope to learn how coastal plants react to oil.

In the summer of 2010, UI researchers found a hostile environment on the Gulf Coast — and not just because of the BP oil spill.

“We couldn’t take the boat where we wanted to, because the Coast Guard had authority,” says Jerry Schnoor, an IIHR research engineer and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We couldn’t get to some of the more heavily oiled sites.”

Two of Schnoor’s graduate students, Elliott Beenk and Aaron Gwinnup, traveled to the Gulf Coast to study the oil’s effect on the Gulf marshlands, and to determine the potential for native marsh grasses to perform phytoremediation (the use of plants to break down toxins, such as petroleum).

Gwinnup and Beenk traveled to the Gulf Coast in June 2010, when oil was still gushing out of the disabled Deepwater Horizon. The well was damaged on April 20, 2010, when an explosion killed 11 workers and began the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. They were able to collect clean samples of the Gulf’s sediments and native marsh grasses near Grand Isle, La., and bring them back to the laboratory at the University of Iowa for further study. With the help of co-researchers at Louisiana State University, they eventually received samples of oiled marsh grasses and sediments, as well as a sample of crude oil polluting the Gulf.

Back in Iowa City, the team’s work is progressing in the lab, where they are simulating the spill by adding oil in varying amounts to beakers containing the sediment and native salt marsh plant samples. They hope to learn how the plants react to oil, how much they can tolerate, and how quickly they can recover.

Beenk says that the overarching goal of the research is to study how phytoremediation could help restore the marshlands if they die. He and Gwinnup hope their research can help produce some good out of a bad situation. “The oil spill, while a terrible occurrence, provided a large-scale natural experiment on the effect of crude oil on threatened salt marshes in the Gulf Coast,” Gwinnup says.

Since the well has been capped, authorities have reported that the Gulf is recovering more quickly than expected from the environmental disaster. Gwinnup has his doubts. “Certainly the Gulf contains a healthy population of microbes that are proficient at metabolizing oil and its constituent chemicals,” he says. “I am, however, very concerned about the chemical dispersants used,” Gwinnup says. “Research has shown that the dispersants are more toxic than the oil itself, and the microbes in the Gulf have evolved to proficiently deal with oil, not dispersant, and not oil mixed with dispersant. … It is possible that the dispersants could dramatically increase the time it takes nature to break down the oil, if they create large, deep-water hypoxic plumes of neutrally buoyant oil.”

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Last modified on June 25th, 2015
Posted on January 19th, 2011

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