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May 282010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

Goodness knows everyone wants to help.

Take the thousands of people who swept up more than 400,000 pounds of human hair and animal fur (dogs, cats, even alpacas) to stuff inside what are essentially gigantic panty hose in an effort to soak up the oozing oil. (Unfortunately, engineers have said that’s not going to help much.)

There are the “hay guys,” whose display of oil-sopping has become a viral video (not a bad idea, actually).

Other advice to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ranges from dropping a nuclear weapon (nope) to actor Kevin Costner’s multi-million dollar machine touted to suck oil from the water (interesting) to oil-eating bacteria (maybe . . .).

Despite those best intentions, this environmental disaster is of a scope beyond what most people can imagine, much less fix. It has eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons in Alaska – this is now the worst oil spill in American waters; many call it the worst U.S. environmental disaster. Perhaps as much as 30 million gallons of oil has already spewed unabated into the gulf.

BP spill site, May 28 (Photo: BP)

BP spill site, May 28 (Photo: BP)

That means the intense pressure is on the “experts,” the brain trusts of men and women from both public and private sectors who have been called together to tackle the disaster from all angles.

An elite team of five scientists have been hand-picked by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to work with BP’s experts in their operations center in Houston. The new experts’ goal: develop “plan B, C, D, E and F” to stop the leak and clean up the gulf and coasts, Chu said in reports.

The experts are:

Richard L. Garwin, a physicist who helped design the hydrogen bomb in 1951. At age 82, he continues to help the government on military technology and arms control issues.

Jonathan Katz, a physics expert and professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Katz is also a member of a think tank that helps the U.S. government solve complicated problems.

Alexander Slocum has created many devices used in robotics and computer science. He is a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

George Cooper has worked with NASA to create devices used on the surface of the Mars. He is an expert in materials science and recently retired from work as a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tom Hunter is the director of Sandia National Labs, which operate under the U.S. Department of Energy. He has conducted research for the government on issues of nuclear security.

While everyone hopes that BP’s current “top kill” efforts to plug its ruptured oil well with “mud” fluids and then cap it with concrete are successful, a fleet of experts is standing by, ready to work on Plan B. Make that Plan D, given that two previous attempts to cap the mile-deep oil well were unsuccessful.

This next plan also involves a containment device to cover the leak and collect the oil, which would be siphoned to ships on the surface. The operation, should it be needed, involves a “lower marine riser package (LMRP) cap containment system,” according to BP. Previous efforts also involved containment structures and were referred to as “top hat” operations.

While we’re learning terms like “top hat”, we’re also getting familiarized with an alphabet soup of government agencies involved in all aspects of the spill and its impact: NOAA, EPA, DHS, DOC, DOI, MMSDARRP, FWS, USDA and so on. During the five weeks that this environmental nightmare has unfolded, scientists and researchers and academicians and private businesses have joined virtually every department of federal, state and local governments to assist in myriad aspects of the spill.

Altogether, the government, BP and contracted workers comprise a workforce of more than 22,000 involving more than 1,200 skimmers, tugs and recovery boats and numerous aircraft, all stationed at 22 staging sites strung from Panama City, Fla., to several sites in Louisiana, which is bearing the brunt of the oil washing ashore.

The government has been accused of failing to multi-task, but a NOAA (National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration) spokesman says that federal experts are working on everything from stopping the oil to scientifically assessing its destruction.

“We look at how the oil is going to behave, where it will go, what kind of harm it can cause and what we can do about it,” said Doug Helton, the incident operations coordinator for NOAA. “We provide the Coast Guard with scientific support.”

NOAA flight director Richard Henning confers with Dr. Nick Shay, professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at University of Miami, during an in-flight mission (Photo: NOAA)

NOAA flight director Richard Henning confers with Dr. Nick Shay, professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at University of Miami, during an in-flight mission (Photo: NOAA)

The National Weather Service, the Marine Fisheries Service, national marine sanctuaries – all work with NOAA. They produce satellite and aerial images of the spill’s movement and help determine where fishing is banned  in the gulf. Their scientists try to determine the spill’s impact on fish, turtles and marine mammals, though they have said in news briefings that what has happened to fish, dolphins, whales and sharks beneath the surface of the water remains a big unknown. The best scientists can do, they say, is to take stock of current populations in areas just outside the spill to compare with the expected decline in sea life they’ll see later on.

Another federal group is charged with determining “what’s been harmed and what is needed to restore that which has been harmed. There will be a settlement with BP and those monies will go toward restoration activities,” Helton said.

USDA staff prepare to capture an injured bird near Breton Island, La. (Photo: US Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann)

USDA staff prepare to capture an injured bird near Breton Island, La. (Photo: US Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann)

“When it comes ashore, we provide science on how to clean it up. We are doing systematic shoreline surveys,” he said.

Some of Helton’s people have had their hands in big oil spills before: The Ixtoc well that blew in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche in 1979 (which still holds the record as the largest  oil spill) and the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

“This is the biggest one that’s close to home. The only thing in my career that was very similar type work was associated with (Hurricane) Katrina,” he said, touching on what has been on many minds, that Louisiana seems to be the nation’s unluckiest state.

“The cleanup is going to go on for a long time. Even a modest spill can take months. The assessment and restoration will go on for years,” Helton added.

Along with the hand-picked elite team of scientists and researchers working in Houston with BP engineers to bring fresh eyes to the mile-deep engineering challenge,  are others with specialized expertise.

One member of the team is Pat Campbell, an expert with more than 40 years of experience in stopping oil well disasters. His Wild Well Control business is considered among the leaders in the field.

Despite all of those efforts, the flow continues unimpeded, precious wetlands are being engulfed in thick, black oil and untold numbers of fish and sea creatures are dead or dying, unseen as they drop to the ocean floor.

Top environmental leader, Larry J. Schweiger, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, referred to the gulf as a crime scene where the perpetrator is still in charge of determining the damage.

Another approach to a solution came from Innocentive, a business that brings together creative experts to address significant problems from corporate, government or non-profit groups. Usually, those come with substantial cash awards. This is their first “Emergency Response 2.0 Challenge” on their website, in which they are seeking “solvers” to bring in ideas and suggestions that might slow or stop the leak, or minimize its impact.

It’s called “crowdsourcing,” an online call to anyone and everyone to contribute their ideas to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems. BP has set up a process for the public to contribute ideas online, and thousands have offered suggestions. Several hundred have been tagged as having potential.

Somewhere within those thousands of suggestions – some silly, some smart — may lie the solution.

Who knows? Maybe the hay guys are on the right track.

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