Assessing the Nation's Response to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Six Years Later

Dave Westerholm, director of the U.S. Office of Response and Restoration, a division of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) speaking at an NJIT forum on the sixth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Six years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded, releasing millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico, high-level government officials and academic researchers involved in the spill response and restoration gathered at NJIT to assess their efforts to quantify the damage, remediate it and prevent future disasters of its magnitude.

The spill, the largest in marine history, released approximately 200 million gallons of oil, killed 11 people and contaminated hundreds of miles of shoreline.

“There is a low probability of another such incident, but I can’t say it will never happen again. It’s a low-probability, high-consequence event—much like a plane crash—it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it causes extensive damage,” said keynote speaker Dave Westerholm, director of the U.S. Office of Response and Restoration, a division of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the government agency with primary responsibility for the technical response to the spill and for restoration.

“This is one major reason that oil companies are reevaluating their positions on oil exploration in hard-to-reach places. It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to respond if there’s a crisis in the Arctic,” he noted.

In the days and months following the spill, responders tested 40 species for toxicity, including marine mammals, turtles, birds, fishes, invertebrates and phytoplankton, Westerholm recounted.

“No contaminated seafood went to market—all commercial fisheries were closed for a period of six months and fish were tested numerous times before the fisheries were reopened,” he said. “We were aware of subsistence fishing, especially among people in the Vietnamese community who catch fish to eat and to trade for vegetables and other food. We engaged in extensive outreach efforts, including sending Vietnamese speakers to let folks know the impact of the spill. We have had no reports of anyone in the areas affected who suffered adverse effects by eating contaminated fish.”

Michel Boufadel, director of NJIT’s Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection and the organizer of the conference, determined in the wake of the spill that 22,000 tons of oil reached the Gulf shoreline in five states in 2010 and that 90 percent of it landed in Louisiana.

Westerholm noted the importance of collecting as much contamination as possible in the immediate aftermath of a spill, before ocean waves disperse it and it sinks into the sediment. “If we’re able to collect 20 percent, that’s remarkable,” he acknowledged.

Kim Waddell, a senior program officer with the Gulf Research Program and a study director with the Ocean Studies Board at the National Academies, described efforts to document the impact on people in the region.

“We spent a lot of time on the human dimensions of this disaster, communicating with affected communities in five states, including the Houma Indians, a group that does commercial fishing and uses the marshes in various ways,” he said. “They are also affected by the rising sea level, which is pushing them inland.” 

Waddell added, “We collected a lot of data on the Gulf spill in order to identify the categories and types of damage done, but now we need more infrastructure to analyze the data in order to develop ideas about how to handle responses and damage assessment in the future. We have discovered that enhancements in one ecosystem might result in the diminishments of other ecosystems.”

Westerholm noted that there are “new governmental regulations in effect designed to minimize accidents and prevent oil from getting into the environment, as well as measures that have been taken by industry itself.”  But, he added, there is still room to improve spill preparation and response. The politics surrounding such a high-profile incident, which provoked inquiries from virtually every level of government from the White House on down, are themselves time-consuming. Efforts to move equipment expeditiously from one state to another were slowed by regulations.

“We have done the extensive testing that shows what did occur. Now we need to determine if we made the right decisions,” he concluded.

The conference, an NJIT Technology and Society Forum, was co-sponsored by the NJIT Technology and Society Forum Committee, the Albert Dorman Honors College and the John A. Reif, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.