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Gulf oil spill settling in plumes

Laboratory tests have confirmed that oil from a spewing Gulf of Mexico well has accumulated in at least two extensive plumes deep under the surface, scientists said.

University of South Florida researchers at a meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said lab tests showed their initial findings, based on field instruments, were correct.

The layers of oil are sitting far beneath the surface miles from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The university is collecting data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The lab tests are the most conclusive evidence yet in a vigorous scientific debate about where much of the oil from the growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico has ended up.

BP spokesman Mark Proelger said the company is awaiting further analysis of what is in the plumes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

During its own testing of waters around the spill site between May 7 and May 26, BP found evidence of oil in samples taken from more than two dozen locations. However, none of the sites revealed oil concentrations greater than 75 parts per billion. "These very low concentrations do not have a significant effect on marine life," the company said in a May 30 report to the federal government.

Fish toxicologists say thick plumes of oil can kill off adult fish and their eggs by exposing them to high concentrations of potent toxins. But even at very low concentrations, the combination of oil and dispersants - which have been used in large volumes on the Gulf spill - increases the potential for small marine creatures to be poisoned.

The spill reached the white sandy beaches of Florida on Friday as the company worked to adjust a cap over the gusher in a desperate and untested bid to stem what is already the biggest oil spill in US history.

The oil has now reached the shores of four states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida - turning its marshlands into death zones for wildlife and staining its beaches rust and crimson. Six weeks after the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers, the well has leaked somewhere between 22 million and 47 million gallons of oil, according to government estimates.

A device resembling an upside-down funnel was lowered over the blown-out well a mile beneath the sea on Thursday to try to capture most of the oil and direct it to a ship on the surface. But crude continued to escape into the Gulf through vents designed to prevent ice crystals from clogging the cap. Engineers hope to close several vents throughout the day.

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