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BP oil spill presents researchers with unwelcome opportunity of a lifetime

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; 3:26 PM

BATON ROUGE -- For some people, a giant underwater oil leak isn't solely an environmental disaster. It's also a delicious, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for research.

"I was praying for a small oil spill and I ended up with this," said Sonia Gallegos, an oceanographer at the Naval Research Lab at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Last year Gallegos received funding from NASA to study spills. This year she received a terrible, awesome gift from BP, and -- like 100 other scientists gathered at Louisiana State University on Thursday -- is now playing mediator between the brain and the heart.

"I'm very happy to have something to work with, but at the same time I live here," said Gallegos, who's working on automated detection of oil spills. "It breaks my heart. It's my home, and I understand the impact on people."

"I live two blocks from the beach in Bay St. Louis -- we smell the benzine," said her lab colleague Allen Reed, a geologist. "It's an opportunity, but it's very unwelcome in many ways."

Early Thursday morning the scientists and federal officials wolfed down danishes, mini doughnuts and coffee before engaging in a day-long mind meld. Curiously, the summit took place in a campus building named after LSU alumnus Lodwrick M. Cook, former chairman and chief executive of ARCO, an oil company that was acquired by BP in 2000.

"We're here to find out what we know, what we don't know and what we need to know," said Robert Gagosian, president of the District-based nonprofit Consortium for Ocean Leadership, which organized the event.

What they know: The oil will be a matter of concern and study for generations.

What they don't know: Where exactly the oil is going, how much there is, and what exactly it will do to wildlife and industry.

What they need to know: How to choreograph dozens of state, local and federal players, and how to harmonize streams of data into an accessible, coherent set that guides future action.

From a dais in front of round, white-clothed tables, Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, updated the crowd on the federal response, which in the next two months will remain focused on both the movement and immediate impact of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. Within six months, the government hopes to calculate the impact of dispersants, conduct seafood surveys and quantify the injury to natural resources. In the longer term, it plans to study the impact on and the possible restoration of ecosystems, as well as the socioeconomic fallout in coastal states.

Lubchenco skipped through a PowerPoint presentation of charts with tiny numbers and swaths of color that depicted, by turns, the location of pre-impact assessment sites, the coordinates of data-gathering stations at sea and the forecast of surface oil movement over the next 72 hours. She also referenced the Interior Department's pre-impact assessment along the coast, and a "flow rate technical group" that had been assembled to determine the volume of oil.

The brisk rundown irked at least one scientist.

"The big problem is so far there's no central database where we can actually get hold of" this data, said Piers Chapman, head of the department of oceanography at Texas A&M University, during the question-and-answer session that followed. "The public feels there is a conspiracy to hide data."

"It's probably going to be a challenge to have all that available in one place," Lubchenco replied. "We are working on a collaborative effort to put all data together -- a product most likely to emerge is a spatially explicit Google-driven map so you can find what's where. . . . No one's hiding anything. It's a data management issue."

But the passion to share research and knowledge -- one of the prime reasons everyone gathered in the Lod Cook Alumni Center -- should take a back seat to cleanup efforts, said Edward B. Overton, an LSU chemist and professor emeritus.

"There's massive amounts of oil on the surface that is eminently skimmable," Overton said from the dais before attendees broke into smaller group discussions that were closed to the media. "If there's a skimmer in the world, it ought to be in the gulf today. . . . I'm happy we're studying it but we have to make sure we keep as much oil as possible off the shore. BP needs to stop the bloody well and the rest of the community needs to make sure that oil does not get to the shoreline."

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