Chasing Oil in the Gulf

After the tragic blowout at the BP Deepwater Horizon rig claimed 11 lives and began what many consider to be the most monumental environmental disaster in U.S. history, government agencies launched their largest response effort ever. So it’s not surprising that several people from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies were in the thick of the Gulf maelstrom. Some played visible roles in the government’s complicated and, at times, controversial response to the spill, others toiled out of public view, but all returned with stories of a summer like none before.

When Paul Anastas took leave from his position as director of Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering for a position as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) science advisor, he had no idea what he was in for. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate just before last Christmas, Anastas had little time to settle into the job in Washington before the Deepwater Horizon event on April 20 captured the world’s and the EPA’s full attention. “I think that everybody’s heart just sank as we got an increasing understanding of what a tragedy this was,” he said, “the loss of lives, the loss of livelihoods and the potential loss of one of the nation’s most precious ecosystems.”

Paul Anastas
© Harold Shapiro
Paul Anastas

The EPA would have to answer some of the most important scientific questions raised by the disaster and regulate key activities. For Anastas, leading various aspects of such work meant months away from his wife and newborn daughter, traveling between spill hotspots, including the two main incident command posts in Houma, La., and Mobile, Ala., and the headquarters for the Joint Incident Command—the interagency leadership group guiding the whole spill response—in New Orleans. “I was covering a lot of ground,” he said.

After the rig collapsed, Anastas said that within the EPA and at interagency meetings, there was a single focus. “We kept on repeating that we have to remember three things: keep it off the shore, keep it off the shore, keep it off the shore,” he said. That led to questions about how best to collect, skim and burn the oil, as well as how to accelerate the oil’s natural consumption by bacteria.

The desire to achieve that last goal was at the heart of one of the more controversial aspects of the response to the estimated 206-million-gallon spill—the heavy use of chemical dispersants. Something like how dishwashing soap attacks grease on a pan, dispersants break down oil into much smaller droplets. These are easier for naturally occurring, oil-consuming bacteria to chomp, preventing some crude from making it to shore.

Based on an analysis of potential benefits and the safety information at hand, the EPA granted BP initial permits to apply dispersants at the surface, with planes spraying them onto areas where oil was gathering. Later, the agency approved the application of dispersant a mile below the surface at the seafloor where the oil was flowing from the crippled wellhead, a technique never before attempted. 

“We kept on repeating that we have to remember three things: keep it off the shore, keep it off the shore, keep it off the shore.”
Paul Anastas

Eventually about 1.8 million gallons of dispersant were applied and, from early on, some questioned how safe the chemicals were. Specifically, environmental groups, some scientists and others wondered whether they might be more toxic than the oil or otherwise compounding the unavoidable threats to Gulf ecosystems. 

In part to respond to such concerns, the EPA conducted a number of new studies on the potential toxicity of the dispersants. The job of explaining the results of these efforts, among other scientific issues, often fell to Anastas. He lost track of how many times he testified before Congress; C-SPAN viewers saw him explaining such topics as the ultimate fate of dispersed oil and the potential for oil and dispersant retention in fish fat.

Though such proceedings were at times tense, Anastas said he welcomed each opportunity and did his best to make clear exactly what the data were showing. “There has been a lot of opinion and speculation reported in the media,” said Anastas. “I think that it’s always best that scientists stick as closely to the facts and the data as possible. People are hungry for straight information, and science supplies that.”

The greatest challenge now for the EPA, other agencies and academic scientists will be to develop an adequate, sustained program to study and, to the extent possible, reduce the negative effects of the spill. “This is something that needs to be a long-term effort for the restoration of the Gulf,” said Anastas. “We have to be vigilant, and we have to keep on monitoring to ensure that we know the situation.”

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