Scientists use oil fingerprinting to identify So Cal tar ball or - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Scientists use oil fingerprinting to identify So Cal tar ball origins

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As tar balls wash up in the Los Angeles area, scientists say there's a real possibility the oil is coming from the South Coast oil spill.

In the right conditions, tar balls from the Refugio spill could catch a ride on the California Current to beaches such as Manhattan and Hermosa, which were closed due to the oil.

“As the crow flies, it's not that far down to those beaches. Given the right winds and currents, it's really a straight travel there. Manhattan beach is facing directly toward the incident,” Professor David Valentine said.

Valentine, a professor of earth and marine science at the University of California Santa Barbara, was on scene at Deepwater Horizon and is now working the South Coast spill.

Three days after a pipeline near Refugio Beach released as much as 101,000 gallons of crude oil into the ground and ocean, Valentine and his team found thousands of tar balls eight miles off shore.

“Tar balls float above the water, so they can be driven by wind as well as currents. If you have both going in the same direction, they can make pretty good speed,” Valentine said.

Valentine works with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is analyzing the tar ball samples in Cape Cod, Mass. He says scientists can usually figure out if it's from a spill or natural seepage from the ocean floor.

“When the plant matter died and fell to the ocean floor -- then was buried, then was buried deeper and deeper, and got hotter and produced oil -- there are signatures left of the organisms,” Valentine said.

Using chemical analysis, he compares the oil from this spill to tar balls found in other places.

“You're looking at the unique chemical characteristics. We can pretty easily distinguish seep oils from the pipeline oil,” Valentine said.

Meanwhile, officials with Plains All American Pipeline – the company responsible for the spill – says even though we don't know where the Los Angeles tar balls came from, the company will take care of beach cleanup just in case.

Valentine says we should know if the tar balls found in Southern California match the South Coast spill oil in the next few days.

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