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Nation should learn better oil spill response

My View • Don't let lessons of Gulf disaster be swept under bureaucratic nonsense
by: Christopher Onstott The world's leading experts on oil gathered in Portland last week for the International Oil Spill Conference, but the sessions were less than transparent and presented conflicting information, attendee Mike Rosen found. One of the conflicts centered on the role of Corexit dispersant on deep-sea life like these Gulf Coast shrimp, imported to Portland for wholesale restaurant use.

Anyone who is still skeptical that the 200 million gallons of oil carelessly released into the Gulf of Mexico last summer have magically disappeared, and left one of the world's most productive fisheries unscathed, would have wanted to attend the world's foremost conference 'on the science of oil spill response' held last week in Portland.

Beginning the fifth decade of discussion among the world's leading scientists, government regulators and the oil industry's highest-paid cheerleaders, the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference seemed to be the place to discover whatever lasting truths and new thinking resulted from the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

After spending 10 days on the Gulf Coast with a team of 22 Portlanders last summer, I attended with two primary questions: Were the methods used to respond to the spill effective, understood, and safe? And, what were the primary 'lessons learned.'

Let's start with the latter.

Every one of the lead conference speakers insisted that during the catastrophe the press and the public information demands were overwhelming, and the public was not adequately educated in the science of oil spill response. Therefore, the public concluded the worst. Juliette Kayyem, Obama's former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security (responsible for coordination and planning during the spill), noted that there was an insatiable appetite for information with everyone asking questions and no one coordinating the answers.

That said, you'd think the conference program committee, which included representatives of each federal bureau that responded to the spill, would have welcomed extensive press participation at IOSC. Unfortunately, the opportunity was squandered.

While the conference program committee included government representatives, the American Petroleum Institute ran the conference two days before it began, Eric Wohlschlegel, API's press officer, informed me that press attendance to all conference panels and workshops had to be pre-approved. I was denied access to every presentation I requested to attend.

Even with severely limited access, there was information that could be gathered regarding the use of chemical dispersants. An unprecedented 2 million gallons of Corexit were used at the ocean's surface and a mile below, to protect Gulf beaches and marshes from the 200 million gallons of oil released. So, was the primary method used to combat the oil effective, understood and safe?

U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen (National Incident Commander) told us: 'I would not change one decision I made regarding dispersants.'

That may make sense, because regulatory and oil industry leaders consistently asserted that as a result of this strategy a mere fraction of the oil reached shore. But what is the fate of and impact from the 100 million gallons of oil/ Corexit mixture spread throughout the ocean?

Consider that the President's Oil Spill Commission concluded in its October 2011 report that the government 'was not prepared for the use of dispersants' because federal agencies did not possess the scientific information needed to guide their choices.

When I questioned Charlie Henry, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's lead, on-scene scientist in charge of the Gulf spill response, I was assured the use of Corexit was safe and scientifically justified. After all, recent studies in Norway showed how dispersants reacted with oil in deep water environments, and even if residual oil and dispersant cocktail remained at great depths, Henry maintained that there is no life down there anyway.

I admit that I felt somewhat assured, but only until I spoke with Eileen Graham, a biologist who works for Applied Science Associates, Inc. ASA presented a poster on their study of the movement of dispersed oil in the deep ocean.

Eileen and her colleague maintained that only one test was performed in Norway (11 years ago) and it was not conclusive. Further, they asserted that there is life in the deep ocean that very likely came in contact with the dispersant/oil mixture. ASA is even studying the biological activity in the Gulf from the surface to the ocean floor because their client is preparing to sue BP for environmental damages under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment rules of the 1990 Oil Prevention Act. And, ASA's client is NOAA.

So where should government and industry go from here? Instead of incessantly bemoaning their common belief that they are victims of the public's ignorance and press misrepresentation, they ought to use major events like IOSC to share rather than hoard their knowledge. The government at all levels of involvement needs to own up to the uncertainty of the decisions it made (or let BP make) in response to the spill and demand and initiate research that closes gaps in information.

Most people understand that in emergencies, making the best decisions you can in the little time that you have is unsettling but necessary. But what I reject is the notion that it is acceptable to ignore the opportunity to learn how to respond more safely when catastrophe strikes again.

Mike Rosen of Southeast Portland is project leader of PDX2GulfCoast. For more information, visit www.PDX2GulfCoast.com .