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Oil spill still controversial

Kristen Durbin | Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On a typical summer day, sophomore Emily Degan enjoys boating and fishing in the bay near her vacation home in Mississippi. However, the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico drastically altered her family’s plans this summer.

“One time, we were fishing in an inlet in the bay before it was boomed off,” Degan said. “But a boat approached us and said the area we were in had been closed off to boaters.”

Degan also saw oil sheen and boon from both Mississippi and her home in New Orleans, two effects of the spill that have contributed to the closure of numerous bodies of water throughout the Gulf region.

Although the United States government declared the disaster-causing oil well dead on Sept. 19, Degan and people across the country are questioning the immediate and long-term effects of the spill on life in the Gulf region. Teams of scientists, including Notre Dame professors, are attempting to answer the most pressing questions about the aftermath of the spill.

Joannes Westerink, professor of civil engineering and geological sciences, said the primary question to be answered is simple: Where did all the oil go?

“The oil obviously dispersed throughout the region, but the exact locations and concentrations of this oil are relatively unknown at the moment,” Westerink said. “In such a huge volume of water, the oil has mixed into different layers of water, but no one knows how much oil has actually deteriorated thus far.”

Westerink said it is too early to determine the effects of the mixing of oil with Gulf waters, especially on wetland ecosystems and human health. However, he noted that the initial visual inspection of wetland areas throughout the Gulf region has been somewhat promising in that the oil has not seemed to penetrate deep into those areas.

Unfortunately, this does not mean the oil has fully disappeared, he said.

“Even though we can’t see a lot of this oil anymore, its impacts will be discovered over the next few years if people diligently look for it,” Westerink said.

However, the Gulf region’s high propensity for hurricane activity has prompted Westerink and his colleagues with another important question.

“We are trying to predict what would happen to the oil in these inland waters if a major hurricane were to occur,” Westerink said.

In response to this question, Westerink and his colleagues are applying their Advanced Circulation Model (ADCIRC), a sophisticated computer model used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA that measures inland storm surge penetration, to the Deepwater Horizon spill as a means of predicting the long-term effects of a hurricane’s storm surge on inland waters such as bays, estuaries, and wetlands in the Gulf coastal flood plane.

Westerink said his team is using ADCIRC in conjunction with satellite imagery from the University of Texas to form a forecasting system that can track the movement of a simulated spill of millions of oil particles with tide, wind and atmospheric pressure data. The data gathered by this system would be compared to an image taken several days later to project a clear picture of where the simulated spill has moved.

“From this data, we should be able to determine how far inland the oil would penetrate, what kind of wetlands it would impact and the possible impact on marine and human life if a hurricane were to occur,” Westerink said. “This is important because even small concentrations of oil can be very harmful to marine life and human health.”

A point of concern for residents of the Gulf region lies in the impact of the spill on marine life, namely shell fisheries in wetland regions and the blue fin tuna spawning ground located near the site of the disaster.

“This summer, I saw a brown pelican covered in oil while I was fishing in Mississippi,” Degan said. “It made me sad and angry about the spill in general.”

The economic effects of the spill have already taken a toll on the fishing industry and local eateries in that many shell fisheries have been closed due to the presence of oil, which has been reflected in the skyrocketing prices of seafood, especially oysters.

“Oysters are one of the main exports from southern Louisiana, so their high prices have hurt everyone who makes their living off the sea,” senior Margaret Jumonville said. “The spill really economically affected a state that was having a hard enough time coming back from Hurricane Katrina.”

In response to the effects of the spill on people in the fishing industry, the Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans began needs assessments in coastal areas where many workers in the industry live, Catholic Charities Parish Social Ministry Coordinator Nick Albares, a 2008 Notre Dame graduate, said.

“Since those initial assessments, we have established social service centers in five Catholic parishes in various areas of New Orleans,” Albares said. “At these sites, Catholic Charities social workers and counselors work with clients on case plans, including budgeting and accessing government assistance and other services.”

Catholic Charities workers also assisted clients in obtaining food, direct financial assistance, clinical counseling and pastoral care, Albares said. He said all people affected by the oil spill were also impacted by Hurricane Katrina and, to a lesser extent, Hurricane Ike.

“They are resilient but suffering,” Albares said. “The claims process has been highly ineffectual for many, and the national media has turned its attention away from the Gulf Coast.”

Just five years after Katrina took its toll on the Gulf region, the Deepwater Horizon spill has created another economic crisis for Louisiana and its neighboring states that will take years to be fixed.

“It’s going to be years before our economy and lifestyle go back to normal,” Degan said.

Despite the huge potential for economic and ecological damage due to the spill, Westerink said he hopes the improvement in technology that occurred after Katrina will happen again in the aftermath of the oil spill.

“After Katrina happened, people invested in understanding the processes behind it and put effort into improving technology such as computational models,” Westerink said. “The same is true for the oil spill. It triggered a push for improved technology and measurements, and the number one thing we’ve learned is how little we know about its effects in the future. We need to improve our ability to understand and predict the effects of these disasters.”