University of South Carolina

USC grads helping with Gulf oil spill

University of South Carolina alumni from the College of Arts and Sciences are putting their expertise to work in the Gulf, where they are involved in everything from data collection and assessment of conditions to studying the impact of the oil spill on marine life. Here is a sampling:

Jacqueline Michel is the president of Research Planning Inc. in Columbia. She earned her B.S. in geology in 1974, her master’s in 1976 and her Ph.D. in 1980, all from USC.

She is the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team (SCAT) coordinator for Louisiana and has been working on the spill since April 28 as part of the NOAA team of scientific support coordinators. Most of her work involves managing the collection of data on shoreline oiling conditions and making the cleanup recommendations. She is also working on issues such as the barrier island berm (which she recommended against), protection strategies, assessment of submerged oil, issues with cleanup of marshes, development of new approaches for marsh cleanup, and evaluation of new technologies. She rotates into Louisiana for about 20 days and then returns every two weeks.

“It is very hectic every day, between meetings, dealing with many requests for information, and generating the data,” Michel said. “The latest flurry of activity was the request for our shoreline oiling data to be produced by noon each day so it can be on the president’s desk at 5 a.m. the following day. The president sees the data and maps we generate every day on the miles of shoreline oiling and the status of the cleanup.”

She is hopeful about the future.

“The current data indicates that the spilled oil is highly biodegradable, which is good for the recovery of shoreline habitats. So far, 260 miles of shoreline in Louisiana has been oiled, out of about 7,000 miles of intertidal habitat. I am amazed that more shoreline has not been oiled. Actually the combined effects of subsurface recovery, skimming, burning, dispersant application, and natural weathering have really reduced the overall impact to shoreline resources. What we don’t know yet are the impacts to the water column resources. But there is a very coordinated effort for this. There is lots to learn. My experience in many spills in the Gulf is that everyone will be surprised at how quickly some of the shoreline habitats will recover. We always fear for the worst, but reality is not so bad.”

Susan S. Bell is chair and professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of South Florida; she attended USC from 1976 - 79 and earned a Ph.D. in marine science.

Bell is working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to investigate potential oil-spill impacts on food webs of sandy beach ecosystems. She also has been working on other projects on sea-grass beds and mangrove systems along the southwest Florida coast that provide an excellent view of conditions before the spill. If oil arrives at these sites, the research can be used in impact assessment.

“Right now we have little idea of the extent of the oiling of coasts and the associated impacts,” she said. “We seem to be working with an event that is unique in many aspects (size, duration) and, thus, predicting outcomes is difficult. The state of Florida has a huge coastline characterized by a combination of extensive vegetation and sandy beaches; while sandy beaches are currently the major areas of oiling in Florida, there is deep concern about the oil moving into mangrove, salt-marsh and sea-grass dominated areas. We will probably be measuring impacts both environmentally and economically for an extended period of time.”

Linda Walters, a professor of biology at the University of Central Florida, received her master’s degree in biology from USC in 1986 and her Ph.D. in 1991.

She has been involved in research on the east coast of Florida for the past decade. In the Indian River Lagoon, Walters and her students and colleagues have studied biology, ecology and restoration of oyster reefs and associated biodiversity, mangroves, sea grasses, invasive bivalves and barnacles, and marsh plants.

“I have provided maps and information for pre/post oil monitoring protocols for the east coast of Florida for both the National Park Service and FL DEP,” she said. “Much of our collected data will be used as baseline.”

Walters and Dr. Matt Gilg (a USC alum and professor at the University of North Florida) have collaborated on research on invasive species, looking at genetic diversities and species tolerances. They are applying for BP funds available to Florida universities to look at the effects of oil and dispersants on these same organisms.

“I can’t convey how horrible this situation is and how many years from now we will continue to be haunted!” Walters said. “I think it might be worse for us on the East Coast because we are in a wait and see mode that could never end. Our impacts will range from zero to huge, all depending on hurricanes (and hurricanes alone are bad enough). One of my current large projects is oyster-reef restoration in the Indian River Lagoon, and we’ve restored 35 reefs with help from over 14,000 people in the past four years. It would be horrible to see that wasted.”

Gilg, an associate professor at the University of North Florida, earned his Ph.D. in biology from USC in 2002.

He is writing a grant proposal with colleagues at University of Central Florida to study the effects of the oil dispersant on oyster larvae.

“I think the spill is considerably worse than initially thought, and I am especially worried about the use of the dispersant,” he said. “No one knows anything about it and, as of right now, BP is not giving it to anyone. I’m afraid we won’t know how it will affect the Gulf for a while, but most spills have at least some long lasting effects.”

Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist, author, activist and public speaker who earned her master’s from USC. She has appeared on several national news shows, including CNN and MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” to talk about the health effects of the spill and the chemical dispersants that are being used to try to get it under control. Her Environmental Forum blog, “Lessons from the Exxon Valdez Spill,” appeared on the Reuters website in May.

Ott moved to Alaska after receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Her books include “Not One Drop” and “Sound Truth and Corporate Myths” about the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince Williams Sound and its aftermath. She is the founder of three nonprofit organizations that deal with lingering harm from man-made environmental disasters.

By Office of Media Relations

Posted: 07/08/10 @ 4:40 PM | Updated: 07/09/10 @ 10:56 AM | Permalink