Dissecting Deepwater Horizon

After the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were called on to offer their expert help.

On June 14, 2010, about two months after the disaster, President Barack Obama appointed UMCES President Don Boesch as one of seven members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. That group was tasked with providing recommendations on how we can prevent—and mitigate the impact of—any future spills that result from offshore drilling. The Commission completed its report on January 11, 2011. 

Boesch is a biological oceanographer who has conducted research on coastal ecosystems along the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf of Mexico, Australia, and the East China Sea. A native of Louisiana, he has assessed the long-term environmental effects of offshore oil and gas development and multiple environmental problems of the Gulf Coast. 

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: James Pierson

“To me, the tragedy that we now witness is a personal one,” he said in his opening statement at the Commission’s first meeting. “…For a decade, my family and I lived in Houma, 2 Louisiana, a community whose economy is heavily dependent on the offshore oil and gas industry. We saw firsthand the effects of booms and busts of this industry not only on the economy, but also on the social fabric of our community. I see it also as my responsibility to bring the insights and understandings that I gained as a resident of this region to the deliberations of this Commission.”

Also involved in the aftermath of the disaster were Walter Boynton and Carys Mitchelmore, two scientists based at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. Boynton acted as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice concerning the Deepwater Horizon spill. Mitchelmore gave expert testimony at several Congressional hearings about the chemical dispersants being used to minimize the spill’s impact on the Gulf Coast. Another researcher from CBL, Laura Lapham, studied the ecosystem impacts of oil and gas inputs to the Gulf of Mexico following the spill. She participated in a two-week cruise to put out long-term monitoring equipment for the three-year study.

"In the Gulf, when the oil spill happened, there were a lot of statements like, 'The microbes are ready for it, they're primed to break down this oil and make more benign products that aren't as bad as the oil.' But that’s still a question mark," Lapham said after she returned from the cruise.

Mike Roman, Bill Boicourt, and Jamie Pierson, all researchers from UMCES’ Horn Point Lab, joined East Carolina University on a 2012 study that confirmed oil from Deepwater Horizon disaster entered food chain in the Gulf of Mexico through zooplankton.

"Traces of oil in the zooplankton prove that they had contact with the oil and the likelihood that oil compounds may be working their way up the food chain,” Roman said.