Oil Spill Cleanup Technology Stuck In 20th Century

Richard Harris, NPR science correspondent, Washington, D.C.

Larry McKinney, executive director, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, Texas

Ronald Atlas, former president, American Society for Microbiology, professor, Biology and Public Health, University of Louisville, Louisville, Ky.

Beverly Sauer, author, The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments (Routledge, 2002), professor of the practice, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Thirty-one years ago, the Ixtoc I well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico after its blowout preventer failed. Cleanup crews responded with oil booms, skimmers and detergents. Ira Flatow and guests discuss why, three decades later, oil cleanup crews still rely on the same technology.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

For the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about, well, trying to cap that oil spill in the Gulf. Let's get an update on the efforts: The so-called top kill - is it working? Richard Harris, science correspondent for NPR, is here. He joins us from Washington.

Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS: Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Can we - can you give us the final word?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: I wish I could. I can't even give you a really definitive word, because BP and the federal agencies who are overseeing this are being fairly parsimonious with the information they're handing out. They're giving out relatively little information, and not very often. So I can tell you a little bit. I can't tell you a lot.

FLATOW: So is it a definite maybe, then?

HARRIS: It's a definite maybe. Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But the scientists - so they're saying that maybe it's working? Maybe it's not working? Or what?

HARRIS: Yeah. If you look at the image on the TV screen, you can still see stuff oozing out rapidly - jetting out, I should say, from the pipe at the top of the blowout preventer - which tell us that it hasn't been a 100 percent success. However, we don't know exactly what that stuff is. It is probably a mixture of the drilling mud, which they're pumping down at a really high rate. And it may or may not have some oil and gas mixed in with it. I mean, the best possible scenario is that - they're pumping like crazy. It's almost sure that almost all of the mud they're pumping down is actually just squirting right back out because, you know, you're trying to fill a pipe that has a hole in it. And a lot of stuff is going to squirt out the end of the hole. So you can't really tell by that picture if things are working.

We will know that when they finally get it settled down, if they can get it settled down and put a concrete or cement cap on top of it, then nothing will coming out those holes. And we'll say, okay, then we can declare success. But at this point, we can't really interpret as much from those images as we would like. And what BP has said is that, basically, they're still fairly optimistic. They tried yesterday and stopped for quite a while, for 16 hours, and scratched their heads and tried to figure out what was going on. And they resumed again overnight.

And this morning, apparently, what they did was they did what's called a junk shot, which was they started putting other material down in the hole because the idea is the cement itself - which they ultimately want to get down there -would be nice to have down there. But before they can get the cement, they're using the mud. And the mud is sort of - we call it mud. It's a very liquidy substance, like twice the density of water, but it is basically a liquid. But it's still squirting out. So what they're hoping to do is fill some of the cracks and some of the voids with stuff that's bigger. So it could be little fibers that they mix in with the mud, or it could actually be chunks of rubber, in fact, or, you know, knots of rope and things like that.

And, in fact, I did see a still image today of a piece of rubber that at least had been temporarily jammed up in one of those cracks coming out. I haven't seen that since the still image, but it - so, that's a little evidence that they actually did try the junk shot, but, obviously, it didn't totally plug up the holes, because there's still plenty of stuff squeezing out. But it's sort of - it's a race, you know. Can you squeeze mud down fast enough to offset the force of the oil and gas coming up? And it's a really, really hard thing to do, considering that the oil and gas has a free passage to the ocean, as does the mud you pump down.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. This is like trying to clog up, you know, a reverse -trying to clog up a pipe. Or like - when you don't want clog up your toilet, it clogs up all the time. Here, you want to clog something up, and it doesn't work.

HARRIS: That is, unfortunately, the case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And if this doesn't work, what would they try next?

HARRIS: Well, they have something - they've have all these cutely named things like top kill, junk shot and top hat. Well, they've decided that people don't think those things are serious enough, so the next device is appropriately jargon-y, called the lower marine riser package, or LMRP, if you prefer. And basically, what this is is a - it's a - what they will do if this - if the top kill doesn't work is they will go around with a robotic submarine and they will essentially chop off the top of this pipe that's sticking out of the top of the blowout preventer and make a nice, clean cut, if they can do that. Of course, that would probably increase the amount of oil and gas that's spewing into the ocean, at least in the short run.

But they can get a nice - they can get a nice, clean cap and chop off that bent-over pipe, then they can lower on this lower marine riser package, which is essentially another pipe to the surface. The idea is you lower it down. It has, they hope, enough of a seal to keep out the sea water. So - because sea water, of course, really has messed them up in the past. But if, you know, under ideal circumstances, that could actually then convey gas and oil to the surface and into ships and out of harm's way.

FLATOW: All right. We'll be watching, Richard. Thank you for that update.

HARRIS: Sure.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Richard Harris, NPR's science correspondent.

We're going to come back and talk about 30 years - over 31 years since the last blowout in the Gulf. Why are we still cleaning it up the same way?

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the Gulf oil spill. Let me read you something from the morning paper. This is from the New York Times.

Despite efforts to tame the well, it has flowed unchecked since it blew out. Emergency crews are trying to cap the well. Meanwhile, cleanup crews are attempting to contain most of the oil within floating barriers. Boats equipped with special skimmers are attempting to recover the oil, and a plane is sowing chemicals on the edges of the huge slick to help the oil decompose faster.

That's from the morning wait a minute. That was from the New York Times 31 years ago. That was the 1979 October New York Times, referring not to the Deepwater Horizon, but to the Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico, which also blew up when its blowout preventer failed - a little bit of deja vu.

And since 1979, we built a Space Shuttle. We've had the Hubble Telescope, the Internet, the microwave oven. We've sent robots to crawl on Mars. We've built electric cars. We have flushless toilets, TiVo and the iPad. But here we are, three decades later, and we're still using oil booms, skimmers, dog fur, hair and liquid detergent - and I think Dawn works the best, the dishwashing detergent - absorbent pads to clean up a spill, basically, which has now eclipsed the size of the Exxon Valdez to become the biggest one in American history. And we're doing the same thing as we did 30, 31 years ago. And even -listen to this: that these big drilling experiments offshore in deeper and deeper waters might end in disaster, well, that's in the paper, also.

The whole trend in oil exploration appears toward offshore and even deep-water reserves, and major - more major accidents seem inevitable. That's the story again in the New York Times in October of 1979.

Why are we still dealing with the same problems? Hasn't our prevention and cleanup technology improved all over these three decades? And why after so many past disasters isn't there more government oversight to prevent accidents like these, or better plans in place on the part of the oil companies to move in quickly and to clean this up with some kind of new technology or something very simple? Why don't we even have something that could just strain the water with the oil, like, you know, like a vacuum cleaner, suck up the water with all that oil in it and just spit out the clean water?

Well, that's what we're going to be talking about this hour. What why what has happened all these years, and why haven't we come very far in prevention and cleanup?

Let me introduce my guests. Ronald Atlas is professor of biology and public health at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He's the former - past president of the American Society for Microbiology. He joins us from WFPL in Louisville. Welcome back SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Atlas.

Dr. RONALD ATLAS (Biology and Public Health, University of Louisville): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Beverly Sauer is the author of "The Rhetoric of Risk." She's also a professor of the practice in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington. And she joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Sauer.

Dr. BEVERLY SAUER (Professor of the Practice, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University): Thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Larry McKinney is the executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. That's part of Texas A&M in Corpus Christi, and he joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LARRY MCKINNEY (Executive Director, Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Let's talk a bit about this blowout and everything that I've said. Larry, you were just on the Gulf Coast doing some flyovers. Is the oil hitting lots of wetlands, affecting wildlife there?

Dr. McKINNEY: Well, it is, and more every day. I think it's passed 100 miles of coastline exposed now that's been hit, and those that oil is moving in through those wetlands because there's really nothing between the wetlands and the oil, at this point, in most of those areas. What little barrier island was there was lost during Katrina-Rita time. So, every day, more oil is moving in as the conditions get worse. Well, there's 20 to 30 days of oil offshore waiting to come in.

FLATOW: My goodness. Ron Atlas, you worked on the Exxon Valdez spill. How does the emergency response we've seen in the Gulf compare to that, and how does it compare to the one I mentioned in the Gulf 31 years ago?

Dr. ATLAS: I think, Ira, as you point out, they're very similar. First responses try and stop the oil from reaching shore. So we put up booms. We put out skimmers, and the belief is that you can protect these sensitive areas.

And, obviously, we failed to be able to do that in Prince William Sound, in the Exxon Valdez case, and we're failing right now along the Louisiana coast.

We were quite fortunate with Ixtoc I that it really didn't have the major impact that such a large spill could have along the coastline. You know, it threatened, and it did hit a little bit of coast, but nothing like what we fear may happen now.

FLATOW: Beverly Sauer, give us an idea of the sort of emergency plan that BP had ready for this sort of disaster. You have a copy of it, do you not?

Dr. SAUER: I have a copy. And what you see is a very traditional crisis communication plan that's based more on a phone-tree concept of response. It lists all kinds of phone numbers, all kinds of responses. But what you don't see and they may be available, but you don't see them in the plan are the particular ways that companies are ready to respond to a disaster.

So when you see the EPA asking people to brainstorm, that's kind of after-the-fact thinking. That's the kind of thinking that should be part of a strategic plan, rather than the moment of crisis, when you have everything falling apart and you're trying to figure out what to do.

Obviously, you make mistakes. Things happen. There are unpredictable things that happen. But if a company has sort of predicted those outcomes, it's more likely to have plans in place and very specific, site-specific plans in place to deal with a disaster.

FLATOW: Why are there why is this so surprising? I mean, people knew that this might happen. Why don't we have plans and practical plans that we know ahead of time are going to be working? I mean, it strikes me that what we have going on the Gulf here is a giant experiment, because they say, you know, we've never tried this in 5,000 feet of water. We've tried in a few hundred feet. So we're all part of a giant experiment to see if this works.

Dr. SAUER: Well, sometimes, Ira, that's the way technologies work: We extend, we extend, we extend. And what you saw, in fact, in the Challenger disaster was that there was a model that I mean, the Columbia disaster. There was a model that predicted burnout in a plane, and we knew what would happen with the foam. But we try to extend. We try to predict. We try to go into the unknown. So that's one answer.

The other is that engineers sometimes rely on very high-tech solutions, and, in fact, boats and skimmers may be the better solution if we can do it in a better way.

FLATOW: Larry McKinney, a few years ago, you served on a panel at the Department of Energy that looked at issues related to exploring and developing oil in deep water. Did you have concerns about possible disasters like this?

Dr. McKINNEY: Well, it was certainly a topic of discussion. I was one of the two biologists on the panel. The rest of the panel were made up of engineers from all the major companies that we know about. And a big focus of theirs was this technology, just as we were talking about, of looking at it.

And, of course, we asked a lot of naive questions that - we didn't know much about them. And then we got a lot of assurances that there were systems in place, and they would work. And I guess we weren't the naive ones after all.

FLATOW: So the technology - so it's assumed that they would depend on the systems, and this kind of thing would never happen.

Dr. McKINNEY: I think it was a combination of two things, at least in my familiarity with the industry, was one is just they had those technological fixes they had great faith in. But also, they had built up a really, you know, pretty good safety record working on the Continental Shelf in that area. Over the years, I think it - they got kind of complacent that all they had to do is translate that into these deeper waters, and clearly, that was not the case.

FLATOW: And complacency seems to be a problem in all high-tech things that go wrong, doesn't it? In a lot of different issues.

Dr. ATLAS: I think that's right, Ira. We certainly saw that in Alaska. In the years before the Exxon Valdez spill, we had plans in place, and then when spills didn't occur, we became complacent, put them on the shelf. People left their positions, and we forgot what to do, and we weren't ready to respond very quickly.

Dr. SAUER: And one of the things you see is that people treat the accident as the anomaly rather than as part of what happens to large systems, and large systems have accidents. We've seen that in all kinds of areas, like the Upper Big Branch mining disaster. We see it in aerospace disasters.

FLATOW: You know, the shuttle is now 20 - over 20 years old, and I remember when the first shuttle launched, we asked what's the odds of a disaster happening, and they would pull a figure out of the air and say, oh, one in 10,000, when it turned out to become one in 50.

Dr. SAUER: Right. I've heard numbers of one in 25, actually. And part of the problem is you build in redundancies, and sometimes the redundancies aren't really redundant. We have the same - you know, nine of the same computers are not necessarily redundant. They're just nine of the same failure modes.

So one of the things I see is also that we forget the common sense science solution, which is and the example is the Titanic. We believed the Titanic was invincible, so we didn't put lifeboats on it. We believed that the shuttle could not - or that astronauts could not survive the shuttle, so we didn't put in an exit strategy.

And I think what happened in the Gulf was the same kind of thing, that we were so convinced of our large-scale technologies that we forgot about the very small-scale solutions that can actually prevent or clean up disaster.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can call us, or you can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Larry McKinney, let's talk a bit about the oil in the wetlands. What are the options for cleaning it up? I mean...

Dr. McKINNEY: Well, that is a big challenge. And basically, when the oil gets into those wetlands, there's going to have to be some very difficult decisions, and some of them will probably not be popular because of the particular wetlands there in Louisiana, the nature of the bottoms. Once it's in and working, the choice is maybe to do nothing. It's too late, because anything that you might do mechanically - that's typical of what people think of - to go in there either with equipment or even on foot, could very well destroy the very foundation of those wetlands, and they begin to turn to open water, anyways. So the options are, as you said at the beginning of the program, we're still back in that stone age period of time. We don't have good options, so the best option is to prevent.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. There were some options people had talked about, burning it, bulldozing it. Some - there was some talk in Louisiana about putting up a big sand berm to keep out the oil.

Dr. McKINNEY: Well, that's a - those are technologies to keep it out of those wetlands. But, as you said, once it gets in the wetlands, what are your options there? Then that's where it becomes very restrictive. So, yes, any - almost any risk, it seems like, they take to keep it out of those wetlands is the best option.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, let's talk about eating the oil with naturally occurring microbes. There are naturally occurring microbes in the oceans that eat oil, aren't there?

Dr. ATLAS: (unintelligible) there are...

Dr. McKINNEY: Absolutely. In the Gulf of Mexico, there are many natural sieves that have, you know, forever, obviously. And so there's a whole fauna that has evolved to deal with that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm sorry, who else...

Dr. ATLAS: Listen, in fact, they are eating the oil, as we speak. And the oil that's coming into the wetlands is being decomposed slower than we want, but the microbes are consuming it. And there are some ways to speed that up with non-invasive technologies that was used extensively in the Exxon Valdez spill -maybe appropriate here, although it may face different challenges.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And can we engineer a microbe that might eat it better?

Dr. ATLAS: You know, we have found the natural microbes in all the oceans do a better job. Oil is very complex, and the microbial communities that consume oil are diverse and complex. So there have been tests of feeding organisms onto spills, and they have consistently failed to do a better job than the natural microbes.

FLATOW: Can we speed up the proliferation of these natural microbes so that they get hungrier?

Dr. ATLAS: That we have been able to do by adding fertilizers. It's very much like your lawn. You have all the grass seeds you need out there. But if you want a really lush lawn, you periodically add some fertilizer. That's what we did in Exxon Valdez. We've done it in other cases, and it may work here. But as has been indicated, the real key is keep it out of the sensitive areas. Try and do everything you can to prevent the oil from entering the marshes or the sensitive coastlands. And it's only when that fails, you first look at whether you can physically mop it up - which, fortunately, along the sand beaches we're able to do right now. But in the marshes, it may have to be left to the microbes.

Dr. SAUER: And Ira, I'd like to back it up to the decision-making on board the Deepwater Horizon and the kind of decision-making that people are doing when they're looking at risky technologies. There was a one in 10 chance we knew that the blowout protectors would not work in certain circumstances, particularly when the drill bit was there. We - the Mine Management Service has a report that says that most of the accidents occurred during cementing, which is what we believe happened here.

And we also have to start thinking about the ways that we treat the kinds of gases that come up when we're dealing with oil drilling and the kinds of processes, and also the way we engineer the systems so that the - we have a way to turn it off very quickly, cut power so that we don't have explosions from the gases, and also not have economics drive the decision-making.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, this is - let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the oil spill in the Gulf. And let's get back to that technology and the decisions, because these are - as I say, we've spent over 30 years thinking about these, and yet we're still use some basically the same kind of technologies to clean up. And it doesn't seem like we've developed any really new high technologies to prevent it. We're just putting our eggs in one basket again, Beverly.

Dr. McKINNEY: I think one thing we're going to have - this is Larry.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. McKINNEY: I think one thing that we're going to have to look at - and I'm sure they're beginning to do so - is to make decision once and say, technology failure, or our failure to execute, or a combination, whatever that was. And so, you know, you would hope that the technology is what will work, because there are 30 or 40 other platforms or sites out there that have this same technology on it right now.

FLATOW: Do we know if any of these blowout preventers have actually prevented blowouts in the Gulf?

Dr. SAUER: They have. And actually, we have - they have a fairly high accident rate. I was actually surprised at the statistics. There's a Mine Management study that says that three out of 14 of these blowout protectors could not -only three out of 14 could shear a pipe under the conditions in which they were asked to do. And now that we have harder and harder, stronger steel, it becomes even more difficult to have the shearing work. There were 14 accidents related to blowout protectors since 2005. And many people think that there ought to be sort of a second line of defense.

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, there were decisions made about withdrawing this mud that you were talking about before. And the mud is used to hold down the pressure or contain the gas as it's coming out during sensitive periods, like cementing and closing down the well. So we have to be more careful about our risk decisions and make sure that there are simple backups in place.

FLATOW: So - but that is supposed to be a backup. Isn't that - that's the blowout preventer.

Dr. SAUER: That's the ultimate backup. It's a very complex technical machine. And, in fact, one person, Laurence Power from Scotland, said that the logic of it - it might not even be apparent to people. But it's a complex hydraulic device. It's very difficult to turn on. And the robots that are sent down sometimes afterwards have to turn them on because it's not well-designed for people to turn it off. And that's the real problem. These systems have to be designed so that they're ergonomically useful and so that people can access the turnoff and the cutoff switches immediately when there's they sense disaster.

FLATOW: Well, if you think it's really never, ever going to happen, then you won't make it easy to happen, to turn it off.

Dr. SAUER: That's right. And actually, one of the funny things about risk is the more you think it's going to happen, the more you actually reduce your risk because the more you put in place prevention devices, and the more you work carefully. There are all kinds of ways in which...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. SAUER: ...believing that risk occurs, and is very high, will actually make you a safer workplace.

FLATOW: There you go. We're going to take a short break. We're going to come back and talk about the - a little risk management in the Gulf. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. 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: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about ways to clean up and prevent a future spill in the gulf with my guest Ron Atlas of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Beverly Sauer, author of "The Rhetoric of Risk," Larry McKinney of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Some tweets are coming in, wanting to know about the dispersants. I'll just read one of them from Destined Girl. She says: Why was the decision made? Please talk about the dispersant's ecological effects, efficiency, the large plume distribution by - underwater heading towards Mobile Bay.

Larry, why - have dispersants been a standard way? I mean, I think even going back to that spill 30 years ago?

Dr. McKINNEY: Well, we have used dispersants, but we've use them from a surface application, dropping them from airplanes or vessels, and this type of thing. We've never it's never been used to inject dispersants at the site of the spill, at 5,000 feet. And I think that is going to turn out to be a bad decision. And one of the reasons is is the formation of this underwater plume. We're talking about the impact of this oil on the wetlands, and it's visible and really pretty astounding. But the greater damage may be being done by this plume.

And just recently, one of the research vessels found one plume. And I looked at the dimensions of it. Basically, it's about 82 square miles of cloud of this oil mixture. And that well, how that translates, that's about a little more than half the size of Lake Erie, about twice the size of Lake Tahoe.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. McKINNEY: And it's moving toward what's called De Soto Canyon, and it's at 10,000 feet. It's twice the depth of where it started. So it's been going downhill. The problem is if it gets in to that canyon and gets into the upwelling that occurs there and it brings it up onto the continental shelf, then we one good case scenario would be that it would mix, and the warmer temperature would break it down along with sunlight. The worst case would be that it stays somewhat intact and then gets entrained into the currents that move down the west coast of Florida, and so forth.

And the controversy is that there are studies that have shown that when the oil comes out at these depths like this, they do form these National Research Council Study show that these atomized, these small particles of oil would form naturally. That's the job of dispersants. That makes that happen even more so, and that has been the concern. And the warnings that have been raised over and over that using those dispersants would create these plumes, that was dismissed because of the concern - they wanted to keep the oil off the surface. Well, apparently they've done that. And if there's this plume, perhaps others, this may be causing - it may end up causing the greatest amount of ecological damage that we can't even see that will be going on for many years.

FLATOW: So the idea was that if you can't see, it's not there.

Dr. McKINNEY: Right. I mean...

FLATOW: Just keep it off the surface. People won't see it. It's not going (unintelligible)...

Dr. McKINNEY: That, and perhaps - and keeping it - and one decision was if this doesn't come to the surface and float into the wetlands, then that's better. It's better to have it in the water column. And I'm not sure that was a wise decision.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Go ahead, Ron.

Dr. ATLAS: But it's also not clear that it's a bad decision. I mean, right now, scientifically, it's unknown.

Dr. McKINNEY: Yeah.

Dr. ATLAS: In the past, when we've kept oil away from the shorelines, we've minimized the impact. The reports so far of some of these plumes have also said that there are fish swimming nearby that don't seem to be affected. They may be. They may not be. I'm waiting to see the end result somewhere down the road. But while we have lots of fears, we don't have the scientific answers on some of these.

FLATOW: So what we're doing is one big science experiment here in the Gulf. We - an experiment which we've never had a blowout that deep and a spill, and an experiment to see where all the oil would go.

Dr. ATLAS: Well...

Dr. McKINNEY: And that's exactly right. That's the concern. We as we said, we don't know, and we have we're going to learn.

Dr. SAUER: Well, one thing we know is that it was a very unplanned experiment, also, and, hopefully in science, people think about what the outcomes will be and what the options are before they take choices which lead to unplanned experiments. And so what you have is a divorce between what went on in the risk decision-making on the boat and the environmental concerns that these gentlemen are talking about that are so important. I think if you if we were real scientists and doing a real experiment, we would not be doing unplanned experiments there.

FLATOW: And we wouldn't be killing 11 people.

Dr. SAUER: Right - well, we wouldn't be killing 11 people, is absolutely right.

FLATOW: I mean, it's hardly ever mentioned anywhere that 11 people died in this accident.

Dr. ATLAS: Right.

FLATOW: You know, if these were coalminers, and if 11 people died...

Dr. SAUER: I actually made that argument in an article in Forbes or Reuters. I can't remember which. But I think one of the things we see is that the coalmines are a very tight community, and they're on land. And it's very easy for the press to stand with those coalminers, waiting to hear the coalmining families, waiting to hear the results, mourning the grief.

The rig workers tend to come from very dispersed places. They're on a rig for a very short period of time. There aren't communities surrounding these people on a rig, so the fly in, they go back home to their communities. And I think that really affects how we mourn their deaths and how we honor them and what they've done.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have no vigils, we have no funerals, we have no ceremonies, or any of these.

Dr. SAUER: And in fact, I've heard some really almost insulting things about these guys as really hard workers. And I think what we ought to do is - these are the people who really know the equipment. They really understand what's going on. They're sensitive to the noises, the pops and the bumps.

And in a risk decision-making their opinion should be valued also. And that's one of the things we've learned from risk decision-making, in decision science, is to value the local knowledge. And I would say onshore as well, for the biologists, that the local knowledge that the people of Louisiana and Mississippi bring to this will also be part of the solution.

FLATOW: Ron, why don't we have better science on new cleanup technologies? Whose job is that to do that?

Dr. ATLAS: In the past it's been the government's job. We've seen some oil company involvement as well. But when you don't have a frequent occurrence of these spills, that impetus for developing technology that may or may not ever be applied goes away.

And so, you know, typically were a decade or more between major spills and we simply do not develop much. And what does get developed does not feel tested, so that right now there probably are hundreds of different scientists and companies running forth to BP saying we have the solution. And the answer you'll get back - and I know we got in Exxon Valdez is: Show me the proof. And the answer is: Well, we've never had time to really test it in a real-world situation because they haven't presented themselves.

Dr. SAUER: Actually, between 2001 and 2007 there were 356 spills related to blowouts, 302 injuries and - on these offshore rigs. And I think one of things that happened is that a lot of these spills were self-contained, that the pipes actually collapsed in on themselves, the sand and mud filled in.

A lot of them were within 500 feet rather than the really deep wells, where the pressures are much greater. So we've never had - we have had the opportunity to look at these, but we haven't really needed to in some way because they haven't really had the impact this very large spill has had.

FLATOW: Well, you know, if you want to build cars, you have to test out their worthiness, their crashworthiness. Why don't we have a same kind of rule: If you want to build oil rigs, you have test out the safety precautions?

Dr. SAUER: Well, obviously you do. And the Mine Safety and Health Administration has regulations relating to this. But as you develop new technologies, it becomes more and more difficult to keep the regulatory apparatus going.

In order words, these regulations have to be put in place after experimentation. You get back to the same problem that we don't know the outcome because we havent had them tested in the situation in which the disaster occurs. And you don't want to put people's lives at risk in order to do that kind of testing.

There is an interesting problem, though, that there's no certification process for these blowout protectors. Many of them we believe are not designed to the task. They - it's very complicated process. And they need to be maintained and kept up to speed. And we haven't really talked about that, but, you know, a good design on a car, you know, is not good 10 years down on the road. There's metal fatigue, there are all kinds of things that happen.

And we're seeing more and more blowup problems, and then we're seeing them with the cementing process, and that may be in part because the cementing processes are changing.

So in a period of change, where we're experimenting in very deep waters, it's very hard to regulate and for the regulations to keep up with that, and we need to put more effort in that.

FLATOW: Is that - are we talking dollars here? Is that why it's not happening, because of the expense to do it?

Dr. SAUER: We're talking about dollars and effort, I think, dollars and expertise, you know, that the government now lacks workers, the good workers are retiring.

There are all kinds of reasons why that's not happening. There has to be a political will to do it. And we see that in the mining industry - you talked about the recent mining disaster. But when there's a major mining disaster, there's always a call for more regulations, for tighter regulation, for improved controls, for better communication.

But what you see in the Gulf is simply to cut off the wells. And you don't hear that similar call for entrepreneurial technologies that can really improve this or better - stronger regulations.

FLATOW: Do you think that's going to change now?

Dr. SAUER: I would hope so.

FLATOW: Hoping won't make it so.

Dr. SAUER: Hoping won't make it so, but we need the political will do it - I would say on both sides of the political aisle, because we are still entrenched in some ways in arguments about industry, and I've heard on Wall Street people talking about Draconian regulation, and the other side is perhaps overregulation, when what we need to really think about is what does it take to keep a ship in good running order.

FLATOW: Larry, Ronald, would you both agree?

Dr. McKINNEY: Yes. Absolutely.

Dr. ATLAS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Are you hopeful that we're going to get something? Some more tighter standards, regulations?

Dr. McKINNEY: No, we will. I think we'll get there - I think it will be an interesting assessment of that, and there's going to be already in process to make that happen.

When you look at what Mills Management service does - has - and their procedures in place, I think that some of them are very good. There will be an interesting question, is it - are the regulations - appropriate regulations already in place and we just haven't been enforcing them or what will we need? It's probably going to be a combination of both.

FLATOW: Well, we could get anything better than dog fur and hair to mop up this stuff.

Dr. SAUER: Well, actually, don't knock dog fur and hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SAUER: Some of the best solutions come out of very - I'm been saying this -of common sense everyday science.

FLATOW: Why don't we just have a vacuum cleaner that can suck up all the oil off the water?

Dr. SAUER: That would be a good question. I've wondered that myself.

FLATOW: Sounds pretty simple.

Dr. SAUER: It sounds simple, but, you know, you look at those technologies and one of the problems you have are the safety - you know, you have equal risks in the cleanup of a disaster, and you don't want to expose people in their boats to the risks of oil, which can be a carcinogen, a very powerful carcinogen. The fumes have toxic effect. So you have to be careful in what you ask people to do...

FLATOW: Right

Dr. SAUER: ...in responding.

Dr. McKINNEY: I think Kevin Costner thinks along the same line. I understand he has invested quite a bit of money in a centrifuge-type machine to do just what you're talking about.

Dr. ATLAS: Look, you've got skimmers - they're doing the essential work of a vacuum cleaner where the oil is thick enough to do that. When you have a spill, if it's on the surface, it spreads out very thin over very wide areas. And that makes it much more difficult unless you can, in fact, contain it with a boom and then skim it up.

So let's go back to Larry's point for a minute, about the fear of what the plume may do or what the devastation may be to the coastline. We've had that sort of fear with one spill after another. Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico went on to 10 months with 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. And yet if you ask most Americans, at least, they've never heard of that particular spill. It didn't cause, at least for us, the ecological damage, and in Mexico the shrimp industry was back in business within two years.

The Argo Merchant went down over the Georges Bank, and, you know, the news media the next day had: We're not going to have any more fish. And then the storm blew the oil somewhere, we never were able to find it. So we're just going to have to watch this play out. And I share all that fear and concern about the harm. And on the other hand, it hopefully will be contained and shut off, and we'll be able to keep it out of the sensitive areas.

FLATOW: All right. Some of it's already in there. We'll see how much more gets into it. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Ronald Atlas, professor of biology and public health at University of Louisville in Kentucky; Beverly Sauer, author of "The Rhetoric of Risk"; Larry McKinney of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M. Thank you all for being here.

Dr. SAUER: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. ATLAS: Thank you, Ira.

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