UC researchers lend expertise in Gulf crisis

Thu, 07/15/2010

A plane drops dispersant in ocean waters contaminated by the gulf oil spill.

Picture Credit: 
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann
Donna Hemmila
UC Office of the President Integrated Communications

UC Davis veterinarian Michael Ziccardi has led animal rescue efforts in more than 65 oil spills, but the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is like no other disaster he’s seen.

“This spill is different,” Ziccardi said. “We have new challenges occurring daily.”

The latest challenge is trucking 70,000 sea turtle eggs from the Florida Panhandle to the Kennedy Space Station on the Atlantic Coast, the largest egg relocation ever attempted. In normal circumstances, only one in every 100 eggs survives, Ziccardi said, but the danger to turtle hatchlings from the oil washing ashore outweighs the risks of relocation.

Ziccardi, director of the UC Davis-based Oiled Wildlife Care Network, arrived in the Gulf region April 28 to oversee the sea turtle and other marine mammal rescue operations at a wildlife command post in Houma, La.

He’s one of dozens of University of California researchers mobilizing their expertise in assessing the magnitude of the spill, aiding in the clean-up efforts and evaluating the long-term repercussions. Government agencies have tapped UC researchers to serve on investigative panels that are uncovering knowledge that could improve spill response and prove particularly important in California, which is no stranger to oil spills. Most recently, the Cosco Busan oil tanker spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay in 2007.

“We’re learning a huge amount from this spill,” Ziccardi said. “By my going down there, it makes me realize how better prepared California is than any other place in the world… Yet any good program can be better prepared. I’m going to bring what we learn back to California.”

The state’s Department of Fish and Game and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center founded the Oiled Wildlife Care Network in 1994 after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska proved the lack of national readiness to care for animals caught in the path of a petroleum disaster. It is the only organization in the world dedicated to caring for wildlife affected by oil spills and researching the long-term repercussions. The network includes 12 emergency facilities and 25 organizations throughout California, ready to respond 24 hours a day. Ziccardi wrote the protocols used worldwide for rescuing sea mammals, and the methods used in the Gulf seabird rehabilitation operation were developed at UC Davis.

The wildlife response efforts are aimed at rehabilitating oiled animals and birds for release back into the wild, but also collecting dead animals to determine exact cause of death. Turtles that have no visible oil could have died from internal contamination, Ziccardi said, or from the effects of the chemical dispersants used to break up the rising oil. Turtles also have perished in the controlled burning of oil on the water surface. The mammal rescue operation now has observers on Coast Guard boats monitoring turtle presence in the burn areas, Ziccardi said.

Investigating causes

“It’s almost nauseating,” said New Orleans native Jimmy Delrey in describing the devastating effects the spill is having on the Gulf region. “We call this the Katrina déjà vu. It’s become emotionally consuming. Tell me something that makes me feel better? My friend Bob Bea.”

Delrey is referring to engineering professor Robert Bea, director of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley and an authority on offshore drilling. The Louisiana realtor first met Bea in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina when Bea offered him a lift in his truck during a storm. Delrey organized several town hall meetings in his community and asked Bea to talk about the levee failures. Now Bea, a former oil company executive, is back in New Orleans lending his engineering expertise to investigating the spill.

Bea has been vocal in blaming both BP and U.S. regulatory agencies for not deploying and enforcing best industry standards in deepwater drilling. He reached his conclusions after interviewing more than 50 people, including workers on the rig at the time of its failure. Bea has created the Deepwater Horizon Study Group in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management to independently investigate the spill.

Other UC researchers are working with federal agencies. Six serve on the government panel that first determined that the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf was far greater than originally reported. UC Santa Barbara marine scientist Ira Leifer is a member of the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group along with Rajesh Pawar of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Curt Oldenburg of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Roger Aines of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Omer Savas, professor of mechanical engineering, UC Berkeley; and Juan Lasheras, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, UC San Diego.

UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil engineering George Cooper, an expert on drilling technologies, is serving on a federal panel formed to develop alternative strategies to help stop the spill.

UC Davis environmental toxicologist Ron Tjeerdema served on the 50-member international panel to advise the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and BP on the subsurface application of chemical dispersants to break up the oil and keep it from rising to the surface.

Tracking air quality

Researchers at UC Irvine are part of a National Science Foundation effort to track the oil spill’s effects on air quality. The scientists, working in UC Irvine chemistry department chairman Donald Blake’s lab, have been involved in a study of air quality in the Los Angeles and San Joaquin Valley areas, so it was only natural that they used their expertise and equipment in the Gulf.

“We were among the first thinking about the effect of the spill on air,” said Barbara Barletta, a postdoctoral researcher who flew over Deepwater Horizon in May to collect air samples.

Other UC Irvine researchers hired a fishing boat to collect samples closer to the water surface. Blake and Nobel laureate chemist F. Sherwood Rowland are leading the analysis of 400 canisters of air collected from the spill region, including samples NOAA collected in June.

Preliminary results show high levels of methane benzene, toluene and xylenes.

“Some hydrocarbons like benzene, if present in heavy concentrations, can cause harm,” said Barletta. “It’s not something you want to breathe heavily. Benzene is a recognized carcinogen.”

The effects of the combination of chemicals being detected are as yet unknown, and Blake is calling for long-term monitoring over years to come.

UC’s involvement won’t end when the oil spill slips from the top of the nightly news. Wildlife expert Ziccardi returned to California at the end of June but will soon be back in the Gulf. He says he’ll be involved in the Deepwater Horizon spill “until the end.” Just when that end will be, no one knows.

“I think the fear is we may be seeing widespread and long-term impacts for a long time,” Ziccardi said. “We’re still seeing impacts from Exxon Valdez. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be. That’s the scariest question.”

Donna Hemmila is managing editor with the UC Office of the President Integrated Communications. For more information, visit the UC Newsroom or follow us on Twitter.