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The analysis is based on only a single sample, "but it has caused my level of apprehension to go way up," said environmental scientist Edward B. Overton of Louisiana State University, who is analyzing the oil for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. So far, he appears to be the only researcher who thinks there may be a bigger-than-expected problem with the oil.
"This could be a fluke sample," he conceded, and researchers are "desperately" trying to get more samples — a project that is not as simple as it might sound. "We're hoping and praying that it is Louisiana sweet crude, but if it is not…this is going to be a very unique spill. We have never seen a spill with this high an asphaltenic content."
Asphaltenes are the heaviest components of some crudes. They don't burn, they are not attacked by bacteria in the environment, and they don't evaporate. Their resistance to such degradation is what makes them useful in constructing roads that can survive weathering for long periods. But it also makes cleanup exceptionally difficult.
In other words, cleanup can be a nightmare. The federal government has been funding some research projects over the last five years to examine what happens to such oils in the environment, Valentine said, "but it is not well established what is going to happen to the stuff."