Gulf Oil Spill Puts URI Experts In the Hot Seat

The oil rig explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico placed the University of Rhode Island right in the middle of another major international news story.

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary E. Landry, M.M.A. ’95, oversaw the initial Coast Guard response to the disaster and served as the federal government’s chief spokesperson in the Gulf. She worked closely with officials from oil company BP and federal regulators to try and find a way to stop the flow of oil and remediate its effects without causing further damage to the fragile coastal environment.

Efforts to track the spread of the oil and assess its potential impact on the environment were conducted using software programs developed by Applied Science Associates, a Narragansett-based company that was started by Ocean Engineering Professor Malcolm Spaulding ’69, Ph.D. ’73. The company’s efforts are being led by Deborah French McCay, Ph.D. ’84, who testified before Congress in May about the oil spill response efforts.

Spaulding, who was quoted about the spill by newspapers and television stations throughout the country, said in May that chances are remote that the East Coast would be affected by the spill, noting that if the oil made its way around Florida it would be carried out to sea by the Gulf Stream. “We shouldn’t spend time worrying about the East Coast, we should worry about the Gulf Coast,” he said.

Spaulding said that his company’s oil spill modeling system programs, OILMAP and SIMAP, are the most widely used models in the world for tracking the movement and assessing the impact of oil spills. Many countries around the world have adopted OILMAP as part of their national oil response system. SIMAP has been routinely used to assess damages from most major oil spills, and it has been in use for the Gulf of Mexico spill since the beginning of the incident through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Natural Resources Damage Assessment Office.

As the effort to fight the oil spill disaster continued, URI’s research vessel Endeavor departed for the site of what many experts are now calling the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

According to Sam DeBow, URI’s marine superintendent in charge of operations of the Endeavor, the vessel left the Narragansett Bay Campus on June 8 with a team of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The purpose of the mission, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is to track, characterize, and sample subsurface oil in the Gulf.

Among the Woods Hole scientists is marine chemist Christopher Reddy, Ph.D. ’97, who conducted research on Rhode Island’s 1996 North Cape oil spill when he was a GSO graduate student.

While no researchers from URI made the trip, there are 13 URI staff members on board, including 12 crew members and a marine technician.

By Todd McLeish