Assessing The Health Of The Gulf, Post-Spill
IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Last week, President Obama's National Oil Spill Commission released its final report on the BP Deep Water Horizon oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and the eventual release of about five million barrels of oil.
This week, a whole bunch of scientists, engineers and policy wonks are meeting here in Washington at a conference of the National Council for Science and the Environment, and they're here to talk about the report's recommendations and the future of the Gulf. Discussing questions like, where is all that oil now? Do we know what happened to it? How has it affected wildlife in the wetlands? And don't forget that before the oil insult, the wetlands were already sinking. Katrina and other hurricanes have wiped out even more land off the map. And last summer, the dead zone, an area of low oxygen water extended over nearly 8,000 square miles along the coast.
All of this, before the oil spill. So looking at all of these problems together, what can be done to restore the Gulf, to protect it, to build up its natural resilience? And as sea levels rise, are we going to be restoring marshes that may be under water in a hundred years? How do we plan for 50, 200 years into the future? And aside from the oil's affect on pelicans and sea turtles, how has it affected shrimp, fish, or your oysters on the half shell? Is Gulf sea food safe to eat? How are we testing it? Can you restore the reputation the Gulf once had in people's minds for sea food, the brand, that's coming from the Gulf? These are all questions we'll be talking about this hour.
If you'd like to get in on our discussion, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us at scifri, that's S-C-I-F-R-I. If you want more information, you can also go to our website and get in on a conversation that's going on there at sciencefriday.com. Let me introduce my guests. Christopher D'Elia is professor and dean of the School of The Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER D'ELIA (Louisiana State University): Good afternoon, Ira. It's good to be back with you.
FLATOW: Nice to have you. Tracy Collier is a science advisor at the Oceans and Human Health Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. TRACY COLLIER (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): Hey, thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Don Boesch is president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, Maryland, and professor of marine science there. And he served on the National Oil Spill Commission as well. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr. DON BOESCH (University of Maryland): Great to be with you, Ira.
FLATOW: Well, let me begin with you, Don. Your report calls for better regulation of the oil industry, more funding for scientific research. Do you think these recommendations are going to be difficult to implement in the current political climate that we have now?
Dr. BOESCH: Well, I think anything is going to be difficult in the present climate, but I think we have a very good opportunity. First of all, the response that we've received so far, not only in the press, but from political leaders, leaders in the industry actually, has been very positive. Although everyone doesn't agree with every recommendation, there is broad agreement that we need to increase the safety of off-shore oil drilling. And there's also broad agreement that we need to learn from this lesson and take heed, and help understand the environment better and restore it.
FLATOW: And what about the money that's waiting for restoration? Is it going to go into restoration, do you think, that the, BP has in the coffers there?
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah. There are two sources under federal statutes of funds that could go to restoration. First of all, under the oil pollution act of 1990, there's a process by which the responsible party, the companies that are responsible for the spill, have to compensate the trustee agencies - those are the state and federal agencies that have responsibility for the fish and the sea turtles, and all those resources - for the cost of that damage. And that money then goes to repair the damage due to the spill itself.
In addition to that, under the Clean Water Act, there is a fine that's levied that is based on a per barrel of oil. And depending on how the courts find the degree of negligence, that could yield anywhere from five to $20 billion, say, of money that would normally go help fund the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, but also go to the federal treasury. So the argument is going to be: we, all of a sudden, have this money coming from the Clean Water Act, as a result of the damage, isn't it reasonable or logical to use that to repair - not just the damage of the spill -but the longer term problems, the degrading delta, the dead zone, those things.
FLATOW: But that's the argument you're going to have to make to use that money...
Dr. BOESCH: Right, right.
FLATOW: 'cause that's not where we...
Dr. BOESCH: Well, first of all, I think we - actually you mentioned the political polarization. We start off, actually, I think, in the Gulf coast, with bipartisan consensus, that this is an important thing to do. So the degree to which that can be worked through Congress, with Republicans convincing their Republican colleagues and Democrats convincing theirs that this is the appropriate thing to do, I think we have a decent shot. And certainly, we've got our response back from when we met with the president. I think he'd be very supportive. We've met with people in industry and police leadership of many of the committees of Congress. and so I think there's a very likely outcome that we will have some significant new resources to deal with these long term problems.
FLATOW: Well, we talk about the restoration of the Gulf. Well, whenever you talk to citizens, folks out there, one of the first things they want to know, Tracy Collier, is how safe is the food that's coming out of the Gulf, the fish. And you folks are involved in testing it, correct? Or talking about the standards for testing.
Dr. COLLIER: Yeah. NOAA is responsible for testing, along with FDA and other agencies, the seafood coming out of federal waters more than three miles off-shore so...
FLATOW: What can you - what do you tell them?
Dr. COLLIER: It's safe.
FLATOW: It's safe?
Dr. COLLIER: It's safe. It's now - this seafood coming out of the Gulf is more tested than any other seafood supply that you can get your hands on. And the levels that are being found are essentially background levels.
FLATOW: How do you test the food?
Dr. COLLIER: The process is to - first, if an area is oiled, it's off limits. You don't take seafood from an oiled area. Once the oil clears after a certain period of time, then you take fish and shellfish from that site, you run them through a series of tests. First, is what we call organileptic or call it the sniff test. Basically, people are trained...
FLATOW: What do you call the technical word for sniffing?
Dr. COLLIER: The technical word is sniff. Yeah, that's the technical word.
FLATOW: Oh, okay.
Dr. COLLIER: So, basically, panels of people are trained to detect the odor of oil and in this case, the odor of dispersant. And so panels sit in a room and have seafood run in front of them, both raw and cooked, and - until they determine whether or not it smells oiled. And in fact, of all the re-opening samples from the federal waters when they were re-opened, there were only two detects of an off-odor. And both of those, when re-tested, came up negative. After that, once they're subject to this sniff test, then they go to a lab where they're run through a gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, analytical chemistry to look for levels of what we believe are the most harmful constituents in oil, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Sorry, there's no other way to say it.
FLATOW: That's okay.
Dr. COLLIER: Okay.
FLATOW: We're a science show.
Dr. COLLIER: Oh, yeah. And those levels are analyzed and then reported out and it's a laborious, expensive, time-consuming process. But to date, thousands and thousands of samples have been analyzed. Extremely low levels, again. Nothing above background has been detected in any of the samples from federal waters that are being re-opened for harvest, for commercial harvest.
FLATOW: Christopher D'Elia, how do you think the scientific investigation of the spill has been handled so far...
Dr. D'ELIA: I thought...
FLATOW: ...by both the government and independent researchers?
Dr. D'ELIA: I think it's a mixed picture and I think it's early to say really where we are, because a lot of the data that have been collected are not easily available or not put into a form that's summarized and easy to make good conclusions from at this stage. There's no question that, though, out of activities going on, the federal government has taken scads of samples related to this and the academic community as well.
FLATOW: One of the surprising things to we observers, was how little data you had about this to begin with. There was - well, you don't even know what the baseline is. Why are we surprised by this?
Dr. D'ELIA: Well, certainly in the deep area of the Macondo Well, the baseline data was relatively scarce. When you get closer to shore, when you get in the near-shore areas that we're very concerned about, and when you get into the marshlands, there actually is a pretty good database available.
For example, our scientists have been studying some of their wetland sites for 40 years. So there's a very, very good, continuous database in some places. The problem is spatial coverage isn't necessarily very good.
FLATOW: Don, do you have any reaction to that?
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah, I think it's - Chris made the point about the deeper Gulf of Mexico was less well-known. And I think if we reflect on why this is the case, first of all, I was living and working in Louisiana in the '80s, and when I left in 1990, about - only about three percent of the oil produced from the Gulf was coming from greater than 1,000 feet. Now it's 65 percent.
So in that 20 years, a phenomenal shift, a phenomenal movement, to deep water occurred without the investment in science understanding that environment for the public interest.
Now, the oil companies understood the science that they needed in terms of the deep geology, but the government didn't invest in it. Why didn't the government invest in it? Because no one was demanding it.
The - then the agency, the Minerals Management Service, that would conduct these studies, their budget went to about one-fourth or -fifth of what it was several years before, when there was a lot of concern about expanded offshore development in so-called frontier areas.
But there was no real advocate for investing more and understanding the deep Gulf of Mexico when that activity extended in to that working environment.
FLATOW: Is that going to change, do you think?
Dr. BOESCH: I think it has. I think, obviously, you the people are aware of it, not only within the region, but nationally. But the government -Secretary Salazar - who spoke to this conference two days ago, has requested significant increases in investment in the science.
FLATOW: Could you use some of the penalty money coming from BP or - to do the science that was not...?
Dr. BOESCH: The commission looked at the issue of what to do with the penalty money, and our conclusion, after considering - you can imagine, we had, everyone had lots of ideas about what to do with the money. Our conclusion is that the only thing that made sense and was compelling to the American people is to invest that penalty money in restoration, restoration that worked, that was forward-looking and comprehensive.
Now with that restoration, there needs to be a robust science and technology program to understand what are the best approaches, to make sure that they would last for the long period of times that you talked about, in that they were - they had positive outcomes that could be verified through monitoring.
And so our recommendation is that the fine money should go to science but to science to support the restoration effort.
The government, in its responsibility, should fund the research it needs to make the right leasing decisions. And we recommend that the oil industry, the oil companies that actually do have the leases, ought to pay for that regulation, as well as the research that's needed.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to have to take a break. When we come back, we'll take lots more questions from - and I'd like some questions from the audience right here. Don't be afraid to step up to the mic with questions about the restoration or whatever you'd like to talk about the Gulf spill.
Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back from Washington right after this break. Stay with us.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the Gulf oil spill this hour and the consequences of it, looking toward the future, with my guests: Christopher D'Elia of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Tracy Collier of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Don Boesch of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, Maryland. Our number is 1-800-989-8255.
And before we go to the questions, I want to ask just one more question that's on a lot of people's minds. Are there any studies, Dr. Collier, that are going to address the long-term possible health effects? Are you following people to see what's going to happen?
Dr. COLLIER: Yes, there are. It's being done through Health and Human Services, through NIAHS. They are proposing, they have now funded, and they're hoping to roll out in March what we call a longitudinal study, following a cohort of people.
They're going to focus on the workers. There were 150,000 workers. They're hoping to enlist 55,000 response workers in the study and follow them for 10 years. And they'll be doing a range of clinical assessments, interviews, looking - and they'll be looking for things like psycho-social disorders, depression, as well as clinical evidence of injury. Because in - there are just - there's only a handful of studies that have looked at human health after oil spills, and they have not been definitive, large enough or long-term enough. So we hope to really address this.
FLATOW: Was there any follow-up after the Exxon Valdez spill?
Dr. COLLIER: There was some, and it largely focused on psycho-social, basically depression, especially in some of the affected native communities, where, obviously, their way of live, similar to the Gulf, was so tied in to the shorelines.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let me go to the phones first, then we'll go to the audience. Dave(ph) in Providence, Rhode Island. Hi, David.
DAVID (Caller): Hi, and I really enjoy your program, but (technical difficulties) earlier, and I'd like to find out exactly where has the oil gone? Or did the dispersant work so good that it disappeared entirely?
FLATOW: Dave, I saved that question for you, so you could ask that....
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVID: Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Thanks a lot. Who would like to address that. Is that Don? Where is the oil? Take 100 percent and break it up into parts.
Dr. BOESCH: About 4.9 million barrels came from the well. Not all of it reached the ocean. About 800,000 barrels were captured at the well head, in various attempts to try to cap the well. So that's a little over four million barrels.
And the - what happened to that oil is that most of it is effectively gone. It has either been degraded, decomposed by microorganisms or diluted in the vast Gulf of Mexico to concentrations which are undetectable.
The oil that remains in the Gulf is primarily found in near-shore deposits, along beaches where it got rolled in with sand grains and the like, and in marshes, where it's been just unable - we're not able to remove it from the marshes.
FLATOW: It's better to leave it there...
Dr. BOESCH: To leave it there because you'll do more damage. Or there is evidence now that there's some deposits of oil near the well site, in the deepwater environment, on the seabed. Some of it seemed to potentially have, in fact, impacted deepwater coral communities, but it is not a layer, a thick layer of oil. It's very small quantities of oil mixed in with bottom sediments in the deep Gulf.
FLATOW: So about a quarter of the oil is somewhere in the ocean.
Dr. BOESCH: It's actually less than that.
FLATOW: Less than that. Chris?
Dr. D'ELIA: Yeah, we are very lucky in some respects, with this. The first thing to point out is the Gulf of Mexico is a large body of water, unlike Prince William Sound. So the situation in the Gulf benefits from that.
The other thing is the way the oil came out of that wellhead was in a jet. There was a lot of natural gas in the plume. And what happened was it essentially dispersed it into small micro-droplets, which were able to be dispersed almost as if the Corexit were to do it.
And I think that aided the process of degradation. That's what I'm beginning to hear from a lot of people. So the size of the Gulf, and the fact that it came out like a cappuccino maker, almost, I think really benefitted us.
FLATOW: I don't think I've heard that term used.
Dr. D'ELIA: Yeah, it's my own way to describe it.
FLATOW: Cappuccino plume. Plus, there were these bacteria that were feasting on it, right, that we...?
Dr. D'ELIA: Well, that's a significant part, and there are a lot of natural seeps of oil and gas from the Gulf, and there are a lot of natural microorganisms in the area that are able to chomp on them.
FLATOW: So do we know what effect the dispersants had? Do we have enough science about that and whether they really worked or what? Maybe that cappuccino maker did more than the dispersants did, or it did something different.
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah, I actually use the metaphor of a sneeze rather than a cappuccino maker - dispersing these droplets out. But I think Chris' point is well-taken is that that oil in the deep ocean would have been -caused this deepwater plume, between 1,000 and 1,300 meters deep in the water column, with or without the use of dispersants, that the application of dispersants just injected more into that layer.
So the use of dispersants was really a choice between two bad options. You could either have the oil come to the surface and more of it reach the shore, where it could affect marshes, it could affect pelicans, it could affect, you know, sea turtles. Or you could inject it into the ocean with risk that you're increasing the concentration of exposure to aquatic marine organisms.
And the decision was made is that by using dispersants, it did intentionally increase the impact on marine organisms below the surface, but that impact was more short-term because these dispersants, the primary active materials in the dispersants are things we commonly use in detergents and cosmetics and so on and are subject to natural degradation pretty quickly.
FLATOW: Let's go to the audience here. Yes, sir.
Unidentified Audience Member: Thank you. Well, you were talking earlier about long-term effects, and in that respect, there seems to be something a little bit surreal about the whole venue because, remember, it started out with a quote about how we need to be putting the economy into overdrive.
Last year, at the same conference, Herman Daly was winning the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in advancing the steady-state economy as macroeconomic policy goal.
FLATOW: Is there a question here somewhere?
Unidentified Audience Member: Well, sure there is. You know, with a 90-percent fossil-fueled economy, oil spills and other types of energy disasters are bound to increase. So how do we get our environmental concerns - biodiversity loss, oil spills, climate change, et cetera -into the macroeconomic policy arena, including its fiscal and monetary and trade policy tables?
FLATOW: Dr. D'Elia?
Dr. D'ELIA: Yeah, let me take that. This is one of the great challenges that our nation has to face right now. Last year, I just saw a statistic that something like $337 billion was spent on foreign oil. And that really affects our balance of trade. It's like having a huge tax that does no benefit for us.
And that is something the president is obviously going to struggle with very hard. So if he extends a moratorium indefinitely, then what happens is we go further in debt because we have to buy more foreign oil.
That's a very strong economic pressure on the administration right now, at a time when they're trying to generate more economic activity, as we heard before.
But on the other side, we've got the countervailing problems of our need to protect the environment and the very real concerns that things like this oil spill have raised in our minds.
So balancing that is going to be very difficult. I would say that I think the oil commission did us a tremendous service by recommending better ways to approach the industry's operation. And I think that Secretary Salazar recently announced that he would be reorganizing Minerals Management Service into three separate groups to deal with the different kinds of function that they have to be working on.
I think these are positive steps forward, and I am hopeful that it will allow us to be safe as we try to get more oil out of the ground.
FLATOW: Thank you. 1-800-989-8255. Let me address this next question to Don Boesch because I know this is - that global warming is more than a hobby of yours. You study it intensely.
We haven't heard that. That seems to me to be another 800-pound gorilla in the room, about the Gulf is that the rising sea level, the warming of the oceans. How is that going to affect, long-term, the Gulf area?
Dr. BOESCH: Well, you know, it's not entirely by coincidence that this blowout happened in the year 2010, where we had the world's warmest recorded temperatures around the world.
Because we are so driving to find oil, we're going to go into a riskier, more challenging environments to meet this demand, and there's a larger cost. You know, there's cost in terms of oil spills, but there's also a cost in increasing the dependence on fossil - continuing to depend on fossil fuels and then increasing the greenhouse and CO2 particularly in the atmosphere and warming the world.
There is no place in this country, arguably, except perhaps the north slope of Alaska, that's more at-risk with respect to global warming than the Gulf of Mexico. With all the low-lying areas along the coast, sea-level rise is a really big deal there. It's not just a matter of a few feet of shoreline, it's a matter of a third of the state of Louisiana.
So - I hoped, when this was occurring, that it would force our attention to this dilemma, that we cannot continue this. We have to move into a renewable energy future. Unfortunately, that's not been the real discussion.
And I would hope as we commit - if we do - the money, funds for restoration of the environment and have to make hard decisions, that a realistic view about climate change - and particularly sea level rise in that part of the world - is has to be part of that discussion and part of that plan. And maybe we can change the mindset of folks who - from the energy coast, which feel very - appropriately very proud of what they produce, but also realizing that they need to be part of this transition to a renewable future.
FLATOW: Dr. D'Elia?
Dr. D'ELIA: Yeah. I would just comment that I'm as in favor of renewable future as anybody, but we have to be very mindful of how good a source of energy, petroleum and gas really are. And that's something that I'm not sure people are fully aware of, that - for our transportation economy, in particular, we need liquid fuels, and it's not easy to produce those from renewable sources. Renewable sources may not always be steadily available, and they may not always be abundant enough to meet our needs. The - America uses about a hundred quads of energy every year - a hundred quadrillion BTU. You can explain that, Ira. You're the science host here. That's a lot of energy.
FLATOW: I know a few algae that can make a couple of quarts of oil, too. So...
Dr. D'ELIA: But that's not going to be easy to attain with alterative sources.
Dr. D'ELIA: So this is a big challenge. It's an imperative, actually. But it's going to take some time to do.
FLATOW: Let's go to the podium here. Yes, Ma'am.
INGRID (Audience Member): Hi, I'm Ingrid. I'm a graduate student at Cornell University, and my question is: How are the social impacts of the spill - such as cultural and economic impacts - being addressed?
Dr. D'ELIA: Well, I think that's a very good point. The - Tracy mentioned earlier some of the social - the psycho-social effects of people mainly being out of work, fishermen who didn't - who could do nothing else, and all of a sudden, they couldn't fish. And so they not only were worried about feeding their family, but they were at home and with, you know, uncharacteristically nothing to do.
How that affects their culture - and the cultures there are quite diverse in terms of the kinds of cultures. There's not only - in Louisiana, for example, the Cajun culture, we think of it - but there's the Islenos culture of people who - origins from the Canary Islands. There's Yugoslavians, the Croatian culture in the lower delta, as well as Cajuns. And then, superimposed on that - on this palimpsest of cultures, if you will - there's the Vietnamese, which were actually - or comprise most of the Gulf fishermen at the present time. So all of those cultures were affected in important ways.
Cultures there are always changing. They have - they're important to people, and we need to understand and respect them. The Cajun culture, for example, has become proud not only of their role in producing seafood for the American table, but for oil and gas, and they see no conflict. And they want us - they want to get back to work doing oil and gas production, as well as want their waters restored so they can fish and have a market for their fishery products.
Dr. BOESCH: And I would just add to that that in the session we had this morning on human health and oil spills earlier today, it was obvious that in previous oil spills, the most documented human health impact is really psychological depression, the cultural effects, the social effects. And HHS and others there were saying that we know we didn't have enough primary health care, enough mental health care available, and they've scrambling to get it in place. But they recognize: This is something we have to do a better job of in the future - and not only, obviously, for a major spill like this - Katrina, other major impacts to areas.
FLATOW: We're talking about oil spills this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
And you say that's - and that's how you're going to be tracking the health effects of this oil spill, also looking at the psychological?
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah. There will be a series of - there will be - there would be different - and I'm not the expert on it. You can talk to people at HHS or bring them up here. But there will be a series of gradations of intensity of evaluations of people, but psychological questionnaires, evaluations and recognizing that there's this huge cultural diversity, and that has to be addressed...
Dr. BOESCH: ...in getting to those people effectively.
FLATOW: Just to play the devil's advocate, here: Might you not miss something that's physiological or...
Dr. BOESCH: And so...
FLATOW: ...health-wise, if you're just looking for the psychological problems?
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah. It's not just - there's a subset that are going to be looked at very intensely, clinically. There's a lot of issues around that, human subjects and getting permission. So there will be people looked at clinically - blood drawn et cetera...
Dr. BOESCH: ...and analyzed over a period of 10 years or longer, hopefully.
FLATOW: Okay. Let's go to this gentleman right here.
SETH (Audience Member): I'm Seth. I'm a graduate student in the E.S. Department on UMass Boston. Can you name any federal environmental legislation that was not the result of past environmental negligence, that is legislation unaccompanied by a collective slap on the forehead?
FLATOW: In other words, do we need a disaster for anything to happen?
Dr. BOESCH: Right.
FLATOW: I'll put it - and I'll rephrase it, then...
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FLATOW: He seemed very polite about this.
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Dr. BOESCH: Yeah. I think if you look back to the legislation that came out in the late '60s and early '70s, it wasn't necessarily precipitated by a specific event - NEPA, the Federal Water Population Control Act, et cetera. Although there were certainly individual concerns out there that people had that got things going. For example, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was a very important rallying cry to everybody about toxic chemicals. And the Storm King situation on the Hudson River helped to get Bobby Kennedy going in some of the initiatives he took for the -what became the Clean Water Act, et cetera. So it was just mounting general pressure in those cases.
FLATOW: All right. Let me see if I get a quick phone call in before the break. Jason in Bend, Oregon.
Hi, Jason. Hi, go ahead.
JASON (Caller): Hello, Ira. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it.
FLATOW: Quickly, please.
JASON: I just have a couple of questions of your experts. Is this not the largest oil spill in the history of the world? And the other questions I have is what other comments on the fact that there are people that post YouTube videos almost daily, like, in Mississippi and Louisiana and Florida that show, you know, oil coming up, still globs of oil every day? And how that's possible?
FLATOW: Go ahead. Any answers to those? Is this the biggest oil spill?
Dr. BOESCH: Yes, it was. In the history of the Earth, we don't really know, but in terms of human - in which humans are involved in oil spill, it did break the records.
FLATOW: And is there still oil seeping up...
Dr. BOESCH: No.
FLATOW: ...from the bottom? There's a natural seep. There's...
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah. There are natural seeps in the Gulf. They're generally at the edge of the shelf, in the deeper water. The incidents where you find oil still coming to shore are usually, as far as I know, almost all result of remobilization of some oily deposits in the shallow areas, either below the beach line...
Dr. BOESCH: ...where it's mixed in with sand and so on and kind of weighted down there, or in the marshes, where it's gone into the marsh and, of course, the next high tide will pick some of it up and move it around and move it farther into the marsh.
FLATOW: All right we...
Dr. D'ELIA: The important point is there's still are oil marshes, that oil is still there. Yes.
FLATOW: Oil in the marshes.
Dr. D'ELIA: Right.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We have to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk more about the Gulf oil spill. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.
Stay with us. We'll be right back.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about the health of the Gulf, post-Katrina, post-oil, what it's going to take to restore the Gulf wetlands and the oysters and other creatures and whether there's going to be a long-term impact on human health, also.
We're with my guests Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Tracy Collier, science adviser at the Oceans and Human Health Program at NOAA, and Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge.
Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Let me ask Dr. D'Elia. I know you've been looking at how to use the oil spill as a teaching tool for kids. Is this, you know, try to find the silver lining to all of this?
Dr. D'ELIA: Yeah. I think you have to. This is what we call, in our business, a teachable moment. It's a - as horrific as the spill was, I was interviewed by one reporter and said: Isn't there a certain fascination that you scientists have with the science involved? And, in fact, it is. It's a very complex thing. You have to use all the tools in your toolkit to understand that this is one in which we are dealing with an environment that was 5,000 feet, or over 1,500 meters down. So the pressures are enormous. It goes up. Every 10 meters, you get a new atmospheric pressure. So that's very high pressure. It's a very cold environment, near the spill. So that was another complexity.
So you had methane coming up, and because of the temperatures and pressure change - change of pressures, that you form methane hydrates, which were essentially ice crystals. You have to be able to understand that. That's fascinating.
Then you've got all the biological effects. You got the physical oceanography you have to deal with, the dispersion of the oil, how the oil mixes. All of these things are just really filled with science, and it has captured kids' attention. So I can tell you...
Dr. D'ELIA: Yeah. We have a program that's actually related to NCSE -the sponsors of the symposium were at - called EnvironMentors. And we've linked up with a local high school, and we've gotten economically disadvantaged kids to come in. They're high school kids. They're very promising, smart kids. And they're really engaged, and they're doing science projects on it. So this is the good side of it. You have to find the good side.
FLATOW: Well, but, you know, you always, you know, I think it was Martin Luther King who said that America is a 10-day nation.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: You know, we don't have long memories about things, and we've had Katrina. What happened after Katrina? We've had, you know, we've had commission reports about other kinds of things that get put on shelves. People, you know, allocate money. The cynics will say, how do we know that all this money is ever going to get to the Gulf and not get into the Budget and the Treasury Department that, you know, to take care of the deficit?
Don, how do we, you know, deal with that kind of cynicism and...
Dr. BOESCH: Well, there's a couple of observations from the viewpoint of - as a member of the oil spill commission. Our commission was given only six months to do its job, and I think we were one of the few, if not the only, presidential commissions of recent era that actually did its job on schedule and under budget, I might say.
But in addition to that, I think we're all committed to keeping our recommendations alive. And so we're going to follow through. We're going to periodically assess what's happened as a result of the recommendations and make people aware of that. The other thing from the history of these commissions, very few, almost none of commissions resulted in something happening the next month, after the commission's report. Most of it would have taken years, multiple years, especially if they involved legislation.
So I think the key is to be patient, be diligent - persistent, but be patient. And I think we'll see some changes. We've already seen some changes. The new reorganization that Secretary Salazar announced just two days ago were very much in line with our recommendations about reorganization. He's doing as much as he can do within his authority to be responsive to the lessons from this disaster.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Okay, let's go to the audience here. Yes, ma'am.
BARBARA (Audience Member): Going back to the science - I'm Barbara, from Florida. And given the preliminary nature of our understanding - the scientific understanding of the spill to date, and also some of the questions - unprecedented depth and pressure at which this spill happened. My understanding is if there are layers of micro-droplets that are persistent and fairly cohesive and still existing in the Gulf, and there are some real concerns about the trophic-level impacts, both short term and long term. I was wondering if you could speak to that, because I'm a little concerned that we're characterizing these as sneeze droplets in cappuccino, and that they haven't...
FLATOW: Doctor - let me get Dr. Collier to comment on - could the fish still be affected, or marine - any marine life...
Dr. COLLIER: So, I'm not (unintelligible) transport guy, but in terms of toxicology and the food web, certainly, it can have an impact if you get enough oil on the base of the food chain to destroy it and to have impacts for animals, Ira. But as far as bioaccumulation, we do know that oil and its constituents get up to about the level of bivalves. And beyond that, they're metabolized by any other creatures that eat them. So we don't have the bio-concentration concerns that we do with a lot of other...
FLATOW: It's not like mercury that's going to kill you...
Dr. COLLIER: Not like mercury and PCBs, et cetera but it's...
FLATOW: Okay. Thank you. What would you like to know now in terms of science? Let's say that this never happened and you could turn the clock back. What you would need to know scientifically or would like to know about the Gulf and any other interaction it has that we don't know now, that we would need to know to handle this a little bit better or to plan for it better?
Dr. D'ELIA: Well, I think the most important thing that we need to know now is what are the long-terms effects of this bill going to really be? And I'm particularly concerned with coastal fisheries and related parts of the ecosystem that support coastal fisheries. And I'm also concerned with the marsh areas.
We're going to need long-term study and we're not able to miss a year. And I'm not sure we have the money to be sure that will happen. That's one of the big issues that I'm a little bit worried about. Is there going to be sustainable research funding to support this kind of long-term studies? We know for very much from the Exxon Valdez experience that there were lingering effects that are still seen today. So...
FLATOW: But we also heard - and I'll ask you and Don Boesch. We also heard reports - and we have scientists on this program saying that while the plume was very active, they could not get near it. The government or BP would not allow them to go in and study the very thing that they needed to study about the science of that.
Dr. BOESCH: Right. That's - and our commission report speaks to that. And we make recommendations that that, you know, careful access should be allowed because of the learning opportunities from it. Also, as it turns out, one of the very important things, which there's much debate about, is how much oil was actually being released. And it was really oceanographers, interestingly, who used an instrument designed to measure current movement in the oceans, turned it sideways and put it on an ROV and measured the velocity and material coming out of that well that provided one of the most accurate measurements of the...
Dr. BOESCH: ...and they had trouble getting to the well.
FLATOW: So not only that, people had to improvise collection techniques...
Dr. BOESCH: Right.
FLATOW: ...and we weren't ready for that collection technique.
Dr. BOESCH: Exactly. Having said that, American scientists, with their great tools and ingenuity, rose to the occasion with some degree of frustration because there wasn't all the funding that they would like and the access issues. There are a number of papers. And on the issue of where the - what happened in this dispersed plume, there are four papers in particular all published in Science Magazine - very prestigious, some very quickly, some published as early as late July - which really not only helped us understand what happened in this material and surprised us in numerous ways, these blooms of bacteria, very specialized bacteria can grow up quite rapidly, even in cold temperatures, to degrade the hydrocarbons.
But also, helping us - that helps us learn very fundamental things about the ocean and about the way the - one of them, for example, as Chris mentioned earlier, tremendous volumes of natural gas. Mostly methane came up. And we think that would bubble up to the surface. Well, it didn't. It all, basically almost all, dissolved in the ocean, and then it was degraded by microbes. That's important because it tells us what happens if we have a warming world.
And those methane deposits, those hydrates that Chris talked about, if they are all of the sudden released because the ocean is warming, do they get up in the atmosphere when it's a very potent greenhouse or do the microbes take care of it? So we - you know, these - we have to take advantage of these learning opportunities when these sorts of phenomena occurred.
Dr. D'ELIA: The other thing I would point out is that the safety of the - the capping of the well and stopping the flow of the well was a very important early concern. Nobody wanted to interfere with either BP or the government's efforts to get that horrible gusher stopped. So we, in the scientific community, did understand that access was going to be difficult from the get-go. But it would have been nice, probably, to have a little bit more than we had.
FLATOW: It would have been nice. Dr. Tracy.
Dr. COLLIER: And it would've - I mean, speaking to Chris's point and concerns about the long-term effects on the ecosystem, long-term effects on human health, we're lacking a good baseline. We're lacking a good understanding of what some of these systems were. We have a pretty good handle on some of the marshes, as Chris said. But offshore and some of the fisheries, and especially deep, we don't have that baseline. And it's, as we all know who worked on responses like this before, it's pretty much - it's very difficult to establish that baseline after. So it takes a lot more effort after an event to determine what the deviation from normal might be.
FLATOW: Let's see if we get another question in. Yes, sir?
AGGIE REECH(ph) (Audience Member): Hi. Aggie Reech out of Northern Illinois University. An opinion question, not a science question, especially for Don Boesch, because of your role in the commission: Have the oil companies - not just BP but most of the oil companies operating - have they been chastened by this event?
Dr. BOESCH: Well, I don't - it's hard to say whether they're chastened. It certainly got their attention. And they understand that changes are needed. And it varies, frankly, among companies.
To be honest, you know, our commission concluded that this is a systematic problem. It wasn't the result of one bad mistake and one company, that it's a bigger problem than that. Some of these companies have actually taken this much more seriously than others, and they felt kind of offended that they were doing the right thing. But what I think they also understand is that it's time for them to act as an industry, to move them up to that same high standard. So we have those progressive companies who have had - I visited the control center in New Orleans, where they have someone watching 24/7 over the shoulders of people who are making these critical decisions on the rig.
It's time that the industry, if we're going to work in those high-pressure, deep sea environments, have that same capacity. And they're all working with that same standard. And I think there are industry leaders who get that big time.
FLATOW: Thank you. So it's your feeling that this is an inevitable thing because we're drilling for oil, there's going to be someday, probably, another well blowout or another sort of oil leak, and we should - we will be better prepared the next time (unintelligible)?
Dr. BOESCH: Well, if I can comment. The getting of energy is not going to be easy no matter where you get your sources. Every source has something wrong with it. And that is one of the real problems here is you've got a bunch of difficult alternatives so what do you choose? Coal has got its problems. Nuclear has had problems with safety in the past, although by and large has been a pretty safe industry. And then here we had this deepwater blowout.
So every one of the alternatives has difficulty associated with it, and we have to recognize that.
FLATOW: But as far as that, are we going to be better prepared, Don, next time?
Dr. BOESCH: Yeah. One particular area that, of course what made this so compelling and such a great concern is that it lasted for a long, long time. You know, it just you know, we - no one knew when it was going to be capped and stopped and so on. The industry again, in terms of industry response literally met in June and decided we've come up short. In fact, if this had occurred to any company, none of those companies had the ability to go in and cap that well, and they now recognize that. So they the four other major oil companies other than BP decided to commit $1 billion in capital assets and then have a standup, everybody in capacity, to go in quickly and cap a well, that they will all share and work together. It's not yet in place, but that's an indication.
So a blowout could occur. We hope the recommendations that we make in terms of the safety case and the appropriate regulation really reduce the risk of a blowout. But also, if the industry is successful in putting this capability together, it will not a blowout would not persist for more than a couple of weeks.
FLATOW: That's about all the time we have on it. Thank you gentlemen for taking time to be with us today. Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge, and professor of Marine Science there. Tracy Collier, science adviser at the Oceans and Human Health Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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