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.”

Strategic Science

Besides being a professor of conservation at the University of Idaho Moscow, Gary Machlis, Ph.D. ’79, is serving as science advisor to the director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis. Machlis’ work was completely transformed by the spill. Soon after the disaster began, Jarvis asked him to visit all of the command centers to assess the extent to which science was effectively guiding the army of responders, from federal agencies to private companies.

Machlis reported back that efforts focused almost exclusively on immediate-response issues, such as capping the well, or on the intensive work under way to legally assess damages for later use in determining liability levels. “There wasn’t anybody doing strategic science and thinking ahead to what the likely consequences of various actions would be,” he said.

So Machlis proposed the creation of a unique team of scientists to consider the big picture and help guide the overall spill effort. Thirty-six hours after the idea was approved, he had assembled a group of nine researchers, ranging from marine scientists to an anthropologist. Though formed under the auspices of the Department of the Interior, this Strategic Sciences Working Group included federal and nonfederal scientists alike. They worked independently of the incident command structure and the formal damage assessment process to give them freedom to consider science policy and any potentially conflicting interests.

At their first meeting the group fleshed out a range of scenarios for what sorts of damages to expect under different estimates of how much oil would ultimately be spilled. In September, the group, which now had 13 members, met again with a broader charge to explore different long-term damage and recovery scenarios, including identifying potential problems and suggesting ways to accelerate restoration.

Machlis is now focused on sharing the team’s findings with leaders at all levels. “The meetings were quite extraordinary,” he said, “intense and innovative.”

Called to Gulf Duty

Elyzabeth Earnley, an F&ES master’s student, spent most of her summer working on an outreach program for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Milbridge as an intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), but she volunteered early on to work in the Gulf. “I wanted to help out in any way possible, and I thought it would be worthwhile to see the government in action,” she said. “I felt that I would have somewhat of an insider’s view of what was really going on.”

In August the agency sent her for a short stint working as a biologist patrolling beaches in Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. She was part of a team of about 20 people from FWS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture who lived on a barge at a spot called Dennis Pass, several miles by boat from the nearest town, Venice.

By the time she arrived, the main oil visible was tarballs on the beaches there, though boats could still create an oily sheen when they churned the muddy bottom. The team’s mission was to search for dead and injured birds that could be sent to a rehabilitation facility. Though Earnley retrieved only a single ailing laughing gull, workers were still collecting a couple of dead or injured birds each day a month after the oil had stopped flowing in her area. 

Earnely said the bureaucratic web between herself and administrators assigning duties seemed a bit disorganized at times, but she still found it to be a valuable experience. “I was very impressed with the people working at the ground level,” she said. “The biologists in the field were a very professional group.”

Jamie Collins, another F&ES master’s student, got a much more extensive and intensive view of Gulf operations. Collins graduated with a degree in political science from Yale College in 2004 and decided to follow his father’s career path and join the Coast Guard. Collins served five and a half years as an officer, both on a 270-foot multimission cutter that intercepted migrant boats and enforced fisheries and marine-mammal protection laws around the Caribbean and South America, among other tasks, and on an icebreaker in New York Harbor. 

But in the fall of 2009 he decided he wanted to study environmental science and began graduate work at F&ES. He maintained a position with the Coast Guard Reserve, though, that would have a major effect on his studies.

Working with his advisor, Peter Raymond, professor of ecosystem ecology at F&ES, Collins had just deployed equipment on a buoy in Long Island Sound that would collect data critical to his thesis work on how rain affects nutrient levels and the Sound’s ecology when the spill occurred.

Within a month of the spill, as the severity became clear, Collins’ friends started getting called back to active duty and he knew he would be next. “I don’t think anyone realized how significant an event it was going to be initially,” he said. But “I was sort of expecting a call at that point.”

The call soon came, but a major catch was that the Long Island Sound research had just begun. “The project was going to fail if he went right away,” said Raymond. So Collins asked for and was granted a postponement by the Coast Guard—temporarily. That allowed him to get his master’s research in order.

By July 10 he was off to Mobile—the largest command center in the government’s interagency response. “The scale of it was overwhelming. There were probably 300 tables set up, with computer screens everywhere, huge maps and charts updated by armies of people,” said Collins. “You had representatives from every possible agency in there, including some I had never heard of before.”

For the first month, the Coast Guard assigned Collins to 12-hour shifts as a night situation unit leader with relatively mundane duties. He reported personnel accidents and major oil sightings to BP and various government agencies and collated data such as how many miles of beach had been cleaned the previous 24 hours and how many oiled birds had been documented. “They kept me out of the light,” he said. “I was pretty miserable.”

But midway through his tour of duty, everything changed with the discovery by academic scientists that there were plumes of diffuse oil submerged in the deep sea. Though the discovery was well offshore, this and other findings sparked concerns that there might be submerged oil near shore that could pose threats. There is some precedence for finding oil beneath the surface. After the Ixtoc spill in Mexico in 1979—the largest accidental oil release in history prior to the BP spill—there were reports of submerged oil making its way unexpectedly to the surface near Texas beaches.

For the Coast Guard and many other responders, the issue was less about where submerged oil might be found and more about figuring out if submerged oil was concentrated in ways that it could be recovered. Because of Collins’ background in environmental science, the Coast Guard decided to shift him to daylight duty to coordinate some of the submerged-oil activities within the region overseen by the Mobile command—initially from the Louisiana-Mississippi border all the way around to Miami, though some areas were later split off into separate units. Properly probing for submerged oil throughout such a large area was a daunting task that included 18-hour days at the command center with no time off for weeks on end.

Despite public concern about the deep-sea oil plumes, there is currently no known technology for cleaning or removing such concentrations. In contrast, significant pockets closer to shore might be removable if they could be found. So Collins helped design and coordinate a systematic program for oil hunting in near-shore waters. “It was an interesting experience to say the least,” he said.

Key equipment used to look for oil included an instrument known as a fluorometer that responders could tow behind boats to detect signs of oil, based on the signature fluorescent light oil gives off when first illuminated by light of a specific color. Less scientific, but nonetheless effective, were anchors with absorbent material tied to them. Collins’ team members dropped these simple rigs at over 6,000 spots, and if they smelled or looked like they might contain oil after retrieval, the material was shipped in for analysis.

Then there were the secret weapons: the VIPERS. The name made them sound like a high-tech solution in the quest to find and recover submerged oil, so they attracted the attention of senior officials.

VIPERS stands for Vessels with Intrinsic Petroleum Ensnaring and Recovery Systems. Translation: they were regular shrimp trawlers with an absorbent boom added to their nets and dragged near shore. They were an effective complement to the anchor systems, said Collins, but not exactly what people had in mind when they heard the name.

Though submerged oil would later be found and recovered in Pensacola Bay during Collins’ tenure, which ended August 31, workers didn’t find oil concentrated in a form that would allow recovery.

Collins rarely got out to see the work he was directing, but he did on occasion talk to the media about submerged-oil efforts, a duty he found challenging. “Once oil gets down to a certain small droplet size suspended in the water, there’s not much we can do. The technologies just don’t exist,” he said. “It’s challenging articulating that to the public.”

Collins has returned to F&ES to pick up where he left off with his studies. “The program at F&ES is designed to prepare you for these sorts of environmental challenges, but I didn’t think I’d ever find myself, after just nine months, in such an incredibly fascinating, rewarding and, at times, frustrating position,” said Collins. “Was it disruptive? Sure. But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to help and also absorb the countless lessons that were there to be learned.”

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Top of Page | Fall 2010 | environment:YALE