Bridging science, management and responses to environmental disasters


Two months after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform accident and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, 2010, scientists, environmentalists, and the US regulatory community called it the worst environmental disaster in US history. Three months later, the flow of crude oil from the Macondo Prospect exploratory well has stopped. The well appears to have been capped successfully and the focus has largely shifted to environmental cleanup. With the event still on the front page of newspapers worldwide, let's not forget to focus attention on the lessons learned from the business and government responses to the oil spill, and how the scientific community can elevate its involvement in preventing this and other environmental disasters from occurring in the future.

According to statistics reported by several news organizations and the International Tanker Owner Pollution Federation, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is among the world's largest and is the largest oil spill in US waters. Though the flow rates are speculative and vary widely, by some estimates in mid-July 2010, as much as 3.9 million barrels (621 million L) of crude oil flowed from the Deepwater Horizon ocean floor well at a rate between 35 000 and 60 000 barrels per day. The total volume of crude oil from the deep water well has eclipsed the nearly 250 000 barrels (41 million L) spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska, by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The Deepwater Horizon spill is larger than the IXTOC 1 accident in the Bay of Campeche, located along the southern Mexico coast in the Gulf of Mexico, where approximately 3.3 million barrels (530 million L) of crude oil flowed from the seafloor before the exploratory well was controlled and capped in 1978.

The Deepwater Horizon accident is not the largest oil spill in modern history, nor is it the most recent. The inglorious title of “largest” belongs to the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi forces destroyed oil facilities in Kuwait, releasing as much as 5.7 million barrels (1.9 billion L) of crude oil over 10000 square km, including the Persian Gulf. Preoccupied by the disaster in the Gulf, the US and much of the world has heard little about China's largest reported oil spill, located in the Yellow Sea near the northeastern city of Dalian, at one of the country's major ports and strategic oil reserves. According to reports on China Central Television at the end of July 2010, an estimated 1.5 million L of crude oil was released after a pipeline explosion.

For ecologists, coastal environmental scientists, and engineers, and the nearly 14 million people who live and work along the Gulf Coast, the severity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is not measured solely in terms of spill volume. Containment booms stretched along nearly 950 km of estuarine and sand beach coastline from east Texas to the Florida panhandle. Nearly 35% of US federal waters in the Gulf, an area covering approximately 210 000 square km, were closed to commercial and recreational fishing. The direct cost of the cleanup work, as of mid-July, has reportedly reached US$4 billion and will undoubtedly rise. Indirect costs, in the form of lost wages and business revenue to industries that rely on the Gulf (such as tourism and fishing), will likely be even greater, if the US$20 billion reparations fund set aside by BP is any gauge.

Statistics aside, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will stand out in history for 3 features: the impact on ecology, economy, and society in the Gulf Coast region; the volume of chemical dispersants used to combat the spill at the ocean's surface and at the well head on the ocean floor; and the impact and fate of the subsurface flow of crude oil.

Largely because of these factors, a substantial number of environmental chemistry, toxicology, and ecology studies will be conducted over the next decade, aimed at understanding the environmental consequences of this disaster. It is not difficult to envision the considerable increase in government- and business-funded environmental research programs in southern US universities over the months and years ahead. The spatial extent of the environmental work will extend from coastal Louisiana to southern Florida and from the ocean floor in the mid-Gulf region to 2 km or more inland in some coastal estuaries and bays. The time scale for evaluating the effects on estuarine, marine, and terrestrial wildlife and fish and their rates of recovery will extend over decades. In addition to studying the effects of direct exposure to crude oil and chemical dispersants, research will examine the indirect effects from the countless number of spill-induced stressors imposed on the Gulf ecosystem by habitat damage, cleanup operations, and the sometimes harsh and unpredictable Gulf Coast climate.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill reminds us that nuclear waste and climate change are not the only potentially far-reaching, large-scale man-made environmental challenges possibly facing our global society. (Arguably, some would point to the waste oils and chemical residues that enter the environment daily from stormwater outfalls as a comparable or greater insidious threat). If we have learned anything from a long history of environmental disasters, it is that predictions about what might go wrong before the unthinkable happens are fallible. The best environmental impact assessments, crisis management plans, and emergency response plans rarely prepare us adequately when disaster strikes. When environmental disaster strikes—man-made or otherwise—the consequences have generally been far worse than the predictions.

Environmental disasters such as the oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Yellow Sea are a siren call. They remind us that the time has come to build new science and political bridges. We need to think beyond national borders and political appointees dedicated to managing single catastrophic events. Disasters of this magnitude have global consequences. The 3700 vessels and oil skimming equipment called to the Gulf Coast affects oil spill emergency preparedness in other parts of the world. The losses suffered by the Gulf Coast seafood industry add unwanted pressures on fisheries elsewhere, some barely sustainable, to replace the shellfish and fish that will be lost to the market as a result of the oil spill.

In the US, we need to reinvigorate existing programs such as the National Response Framework and the NOAA-funded Coastal Response Research Center. The time has come to revisit discussions initiated in the 1980s by the journal Science about establishing an independent US “Science Board” to provide authoritative evaluations of controversial environmental issues. At that time, advocates claimed that appealing to a neutral Science Board could eliminate costly litigation and lead to solutions based on “best science.” Two hurdles identified nearly 30 years ago still require resolution: a plausible approach for identifying independent and impartial experts, and the scope of the Board's legal authority.

Setting aside debate about the sovereign rights of nations to handle their own affairs internally, environmental disasters similar in magnitude to the Deepwater Horizon accident should require international inspection. National governments, the United Nations, and international agencies have interests that deserve attention in situations where large disasters may have global repercussions. Their interests could be served by convening an international environmental disaster review board (EDRB) charged with understanding the causes and environmental effects of disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon or Yellow Sea oil spills. The EDRB would fill a significant science and technology communication gap not presently addressed by national or international organizations. The time has come for the scientific and engineering communities, national and international regulatory agencies, and environmental organizations to build an institution that will augment decision-making and build a bridge that spans the free exchange of apolitical expertise, knowledge, and training gained from previous environmental disasters. An internationally recognized EDRB could function as that bridge.

The challenge for an international EDRB is to conduct its work objectively and without bias. Before disaster strikes, this dedicated institution would have a duty to inform the regulatory and business decision-making communities about the environmental risks, costs, and benefits of activities as varied as oil exploration, nuclear power plant construction, and countless other infrastructure and resource extraction projects. After disaster strikes, this same institution would have a duty to advise on the implementation of a reasoned and unbiased response, and to implement its own investigation of the cause, effects, and environmental cleanup.

It is time for the international community of scientists, engineers, and environmental professionals in the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and other organizations to join a common effort to improve upon the current protocols for assessing and responding to oil spills and similar large-scale man-made environmental disasters. We require a concerted effort to overcome the boom-and-bust cyclicality that characterizes oil spill science and engineering research (mirrored, perhaps, by a similar affliction suffered by research in the alternative energy industry as the price of petroleum-based fuels rises and falls). Without a continuous community of scientists, policy-makers, and regulators dedicated to understanding the cause of environmental accidents, evaluating the human response to disasters, examining the environmental consequences, and providing recommendations to improve prevention, preparedness, and cleanup, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Bridges build communication. Communication builds hope and trust. Hope may be all we have, aided by an international EDRB, that our future brings fewer environmental disasters. When disaster does occur in the future, let's also hope that scientists, regulatory officials, and business managers are capable of crossing old divides and avoiding the tumult and chaos that has characterized nearly every environmental crisis to date.