This week, the city of Mobile has played host to a conference concerning the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill. The second annual Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference kicked off on Sunday and runs through tomorrow. 11 organizations sponsored the event, including the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. It’s an independent research program funded by BP’s 10-year commitment to support research related to the spill. I spoke with GoMRI Research Board Chair Dr. Rita Colwell and asked her what topics would be covered at the conference.
Rita Colwell: Oil dispersion, oil degradation, effects of the hydrocarbons and oil on the wetlands as well as human beings and the socioeconomic health aspects of the Deep Horizon Spill.
Jeremy Loeb: Is there a general sense of the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico as far as how it’s recovering?
RC: We are already beginning to develop some rather good understanding of how the oil gets dispersed, how better in the future to react, respond and to entrap and collect the oil so it doesn’t impinge on the beaches and certainly effect families and communities. There is residual oil. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this. There is residual in the marshlands area. There may be some effects that might not be so healthy and those will be discussed and how to address those problems will also be discussed.
JL: Do you know why Mobile was chosen as a site?
RC: Yes. Mobile was chosen because Alabama is a very important participant and we wanted to make sure that each of the Gulf states is fully recognized. The first meeting was in New Orleans, Louisiana, and we determined that Alabama should be the next site and then Texas will be the third. So I’m very pleased and proud that we will be in Alabama. It’s exciting and I think the folks in Mobile will be pleased to have a thousand-plus people there to tell them about the health of the Gulf.
JL: The worst of the damage or a lot of it was focused on New Orleans of course, because of it being such a big area. What sort of damage did Alabama sustain?
RC: Well I think the interest of course is on the shellfish fisheries, the effects on the shoreline, the beaches, the marshlands, and the continuing effects of the oil depending on the currents of the Gulf. So I would say that those are probably the greatest areas of significance.
JL: When you go to one of these conferences, and do you expect after leaving this one, do you go out of it with a sense of optimism about the future health of the Gulf?
RC: I come out of the conferences with a very powerful sense of optimism and excitement because the extremely good science that’s being done, to me as a scientist and as a former Director of the National Science Foundation, the good science to answer the questions of the public and to provide the information to address the problem are foremost, the most important aspect. And so when these presentations are made, especially by the students, the young people who are so good and so exciting, it just gives me great hope for the future.
JL: This is probably too specific a question and maybe too pointed a question, but do you yourself have an opinion as far as whether or not you support or oppose offshore drilling? Do you think it’s a beneficial thing or harmful?
RC: I think that what we must do is, for drilling, to apply the very, very best science, to protect the environment, to protect the public health and to do the extraction in a way that minimizes, infinitesimally, minimizes risks of spill and adverse effects. So I think it’s the science that we need to do, and that’s what we’re addressing.
JL: And do you think it can be done? Do you think drilling can occur safely?
RC: I believe it can. It requires a very extensive and diligent attention to the factors that ensure safety, that ensure successful extraction with absolutely the minimum amount of environmental disruption or pollution. It can be done. And that’s what we’re addressing.