- Gerald Herbert/AP
BY RACHEL BRUSSTAR
Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 6, 2010
Despite the distance between Ann Arbor and the Gulf of Mexico, University professors and researchers have begun to address the complex task of exploring the ecological, legal, and business repercussions of the British Petroleum oil spill.
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Gerald Meyers, a University Organization and Management professor, said unlike previous oil spills such as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska – which had a fairly successful cleanup – the current flow of oil from the BP oil rig will permanently change the ecosystems of the Gulf Coast.
“This one’s more than just a spill,” he said.
Meyers added that natural methods of degradation will begin to break down the spill regardless of the reactionary measures of BP and the government, but these naturally occurring processes still leave much work for the nation’s engineers and researchers.
“This is a national emergency that is seriously affecting the lives of thousands of citizens,” Meyers said. “Human life is not involved here, but human existence is.”
Peter Adriaens, a University Environmental Engineering professor, has served as a consultant on cleanups of the Exxon Valdez and Gulf War oil spills, and said one of the greatest challenges of the cleanup will be convincing residents that returning the site to a “pristine condition” is a negotiated circumstance.
Adriaens said following any oil spill, the first thing to occur is the evaporation of lighter compounds of oil, leaving behind only the heavier components, which BP and the government are currently working to contain and hopefully eliminate.
But even the 1967 oil spill from the Torrey Canyon tanker, considered the world’s first major oil spill, left remnants of crude oil that are still being found today, Adriaens said.
While the United States has taken initiative in returning disaster sites to their original states, establishing programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund, Adriaens said it is impossible to completely remove all traces of contamination after such a disaster.
Even advanced methods, like the “top kill” — which was recently attempted by BP to plug the flow from the well with more than two million gallons of a mud-like substance and cement — have been proven failures.
While this precarious method did not succeed in stopping the spills, BP is now attempting to use the Lower Marine Riser Package, which entails removing the defective riser cap of the pipe and replacing it with a new cap, as reported by CNN.
According to another report by CNN, the new cap has allowed BP to successfully funnel approximately 441,000 gallons of oil to the water’s surface, however, many believe that these efforts pale in comparison to the approximately 798,000 gallons of oil that are currently spilling each day.
BP’s next initiative in the efforts entails removing the remaining oil that has surfaced along the Gulf, which will be accomplished through the construction of relief wells.
University professors and researchers such as David Uhlmann, the director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the Law School, are not only investigating the ecological damages, but also the legal and business ramifications that BP will face in light of the seemingly limitless aftermath.
“BP and the other companies involved in the Gulf oil spill face significant criminal and civil penalties,” Uhlmann said. “Exxon paid a total of $1.1 billion for the Valdez spill, and the penalties in the BP case are likely to be even larger.”
Uhlmann, who also served as the chief of the Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations for seven years, added that an earlier response to the spill could have helped reduce the ramifications.
“In hindsight, it might have been better if the government did more in the early days to contain the spill and limit its effects, rather than relying so much on BP to lead the emergency response, but crisis management is never perfect,” he said.
Though research is being done on a global scale in attempt to resolve the effects of the spill, there are few definite answers about the region's future in the underwater ecosystems and within populated communities.
Uhlmann added that BP faces an uncertain future as well.
“It is not clear how successful a company BP will be after the oil spill is resolved,” Uhlmann said. “But there is no question that there will be dramatic consequences for BP, which will weaken the company for many years.”