Oil Spill 101: What Have We Learned?
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Though the recent oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP/Deep Water Horizon oilrig explosion is no longer leading headlines, this fall, the disaster will be a major topic of conversation and study in environmental science classrooms around the country.
Scott McRobert, Ph.D., professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, researches the biology of endangered species, and regularly teaches an ecology course in which the environmentalist and his students take an in-depth look at the complex relationship between organisms and their environment.
Each week, in addition to discussions on fundamental themes in ecology such as food webs and population growth, McRobert includes a session called “Biohazard of the Week.”
“We cover current environmental events, and unfortunately, I can promise the students a number of major environmental disasters every year,” says McRobert.
With the Gulf oil leak, McRobert has hit the mother lode in terms of classroom content, and he says there will be no shortage of material to teach his students about the relationships between species in severely compromised ecosystem. And though the location, names and faces have changed from other disasters he has covered in previous semesters, for McRobert, the chronology of the Gulf catastrophe seemed all too familiar.
“Major oil spills happen on a regular basis and they almost always follow the same pattern,” he says. “The spill occurs; everyone is shocked; clean-up efforts are confused, slow to start, and only marginally effective; everyone vows to be better prepared in the future.”
But according to McRobert, nothing much happens until the next oil spill. “For example, all of the questions that were being asked in the Gulf – ‘Should we use dispersant? Will the dispersant be effective? Will it affect wildlife? Should we deploy booms and skimmers? How can we help wildlife like oiled birds?’ etc. – were all asked during the Exxon Valdez disaster, which occurred over 20 years ago.”
McRobert says that we still do not have a good, proven methodology for cleaning up oil that is spilled into an aquatic environment. “This is tragic, because history will repeat itself, and inevitably, we will face the same ordeal again.”