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[December 03, 2012]
USF researcher calls for preparedness to handle next Gulf oil disaster
Dec 03, 2012 (Tampa Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- ST. PETERSBURG -- Reflecting on the worst accidental oil spill in history, a marine researcher from the University of South Florida recalled the chaos that ensued in the days after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Planes nearly collided over the spill, an underwater robot ran into the damaged wellhead, and scientists butted heads with government responders.
It was a "three-ring circus" of more than a dozen sets of investigations marked by unpreparedness, culture clashes and communications breakdowns, all under a media microscope, according to professor Steven Murawski, who played a key role.
Murawski, a USF fisheries biologist and marine ecologist, is co-author of a paper published today in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that reflects on the scientific response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Today, more than two years after the April 20, 2010, explosion, many questions about the environmental consequences of the spill remain unanswered.
Murawski was chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service during the spill. He and his co-authors address what went right and wrong, provide recommendations going forward, and offer some lessons learned.
"Preparedness cannot be overstated," Murawski said in a recent roundtable with local journalists. "What we saw was the consequences of decades of poor to nonexistent investments in both the science related to this and also the technology to do this. What you saw were heroic efforts to come up with creative uses of the technology that was there, as opposed to optimal technologies." The explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11. The blast left a damaged wellhead gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico 5,000 feet down.
Deepwater Horizon resulted in the largest-ever mobilization of resources to address an environmental emergency in U.S. history.
Murawski recalled that there were 14 major science issues "all occurring more or less simultaneously." Scientists were assisting with technology and analysis for containment of the well; they were trying to determine the flow rate from the ruptured well; they tracked and modeled surface slicks; they monitored seafood safety and air quality; and the list goes on.
"On any particular day, there was a focus on one of them or two of them as the events were happening, but we were all managing these events simultaneously," Murawski said.
In the paper, "Science in Support of the Deepwater Horizon Response," Murawski and his co-authors write, "Even collectively, we did not possess all of the ships, aircraft, laboratory access, or personnel necessary to evaluate every issue to the satisfaction of all." Add to that what Murawski calls the "fog of battle" and culture clashes -- such as academics who traditionally have their work leisurely peer-reviewed and published in a major journal being called on for instant answers -- and things can get chaotic.
He noted that so many aircraft were flying around the well head to gather data and take photographs that "there were several instances where there were near-catastrophic airplane crashes," Murawski said. "So basically, the Coast Guard said, 'It's a no-fly zone.' " That aggravated researchers who wanted to be on-scene. The same thing was occurring beneath the surface, which got so crowded that one robot bumped into the wellhead itself.
The good news: For the most part, the scientists got it right.
After challenging BP's original estimate that 1,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking, scientists estimated the rate was actually 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day. An "oil budget" of where the oil went was developed in August, and in November, a more definitive look largely confirmed the early conclusions.
The paper identifies nine specific priorities for future oil spill response preparedness.
A key conclusion is that scientists don't know enough about the Gulf to know the exact consequences of the Deepwater Horizon spill or to be adequately prepared for another spill.
It states that adequate environmental baselines need to be gathered -- baselines being the condition of the Gulf before an incident occurs, for comparison purposes. Murawski said researchers used fish contamination data from 1996; in other cases, baseline data was nonexistent.
Deepwater Horizon researchers were using underwater vehicles that were not created to perform the type of experiments they ended up doing. "We need to take a lot of the new technologies that were developed as a one-off for that spill and actually make them operational technologies," the USF researcher said.
In another example of that concept, he said researchers performing air quality surveillance were actually able to estimate how much oil had escaped and floated to the surface based on atmospheric readings. "From now on, there will be a real-time estimate based on that," Murawski said.
Another recommendation is to conduct research on the impacts of deepwater dispersants, a controversial strategy employed in the Deepwater Horizon case. Scientists don't yet know whether the chemical dispersants make the water more toxic than just oil alone.
The paper states: "The full extent of environmental damage caused by the use of such dispersants is not yet fully known, but if we are faced with such a choice in the future, information available to us now would lead to a similar recommendation to proceed with caution and an abundance of monitoring." One of Murawski's pet recommendations is to conduct social science studies to understand public perceptions about seafood safety.
"The perception of people both in the region and elsewhere is still that there's tainted food in the food chain and we're not going to eat it," he said. "So I think trying to understand what level of information people are comfortable with, and why they make these decisions, and what we could do about it is a deeper set of issues. ... We need to know why people's buttons are pushed so hard on things like this in spite of really compelling information" that has shown Gulf seafood is safe.
Among Murawski's co-authors were U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Jane Lubechenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Lubechenco said the "federal family" was well-versed in oil response and remediation and brought many resources to bear, but "the scale and complexity of Deepwater Horizon taxed our organizations in unprecedented ways.
"We learned much during this extraordinary disaster and we hope the lessons learned will be implemented before and used during any future events," she said.
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