Sunday, April 22, 2018
Education

Oil spill put USF marine science program in the spotlight

If there is some small silver lining in the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history, consider the University of South Florida.

When BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded two years ago, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the university's quiet, 100-student marine science program in St. Petersburg was thrust into the spotlight like never before.

Ready with a boat and researchers, it was one of the first entities to venture out and study the spill, cementing the university in the public consciousness as the go-to expert in the disaster's wake.

Faculty members appeared on TV stations and in newspaper headlines everywhere from here to Kathmandu. They traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress. They raked in millions in new grants to continue studying the disaster's implications. Graduate student applications surged.

"Nobody wants that kind of opportunity, but since it's there to take advantage of, it is a good thing," said Karen Holbrook, USF's senior vice president for research, innovation and global affairs. "I think it's done a lot for the university."

• • •

The phone rang.

It was the night of April 20, 2010, and Bill Hogarth, then dean of USF's marine science program, was at home. It was late. Something was wrong.

"There's been a disaster," said the voice on the line. "There's a lot of oil."

It was Steve Murawski, a scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration who later joined USF's faculty. He had just heard about the oil rig explosion that killed 11 men, injured more than a dozen others and sent oil seeping into the sea.

Stuck in Japan for a conference, Murawski wanted researchers around the gulf to start taking water samples, before the oil had a chance to spread.

Hogarth started rounding up professors and students, finding plenty of unpaid volunteers for what's usually a quiet exam week.

"It was people who knew people and knew what expertise was around and trying to put it together," Hogarth recalled.

In the months that followed, USF would tell the world about underwater oil plumes far worse than government officials were reporting.

They would track the oil as it spread toward the coast. They would sift through tar balls on beaches that BP cleanup efforts left behind.

They would turn to the fish, finding damage there, too.

"Nobody understood the extent at the time," Murawski said.

"It was never a dull moment," Hogarth said.

• • •

The oil leak was long ago plugged and the spill is largely gone from the headlines, but USF has not slowed down.

The continued research has brought about increased cooperation with other universities, states and countries — including Canada, the Netherlands and Germany.

In August a group led by USF researchers was awarded $11 million from BP, part of the $500 million the company promised to spend over 10 years for independent scientific studies on the disaster.

There has also been an uptick in graduate student applications. More than 100 have applied this year for just a couple of dozen new spots.

"It's like this sleepy little college was awoken by this," Hogarth said.

Of course no one wanted the disaster to happen, but it did, Hogarth said, and USF was ready. In return, the school got more publicity, acclaim and clout among the scientific community than it could have asked for.

The TV exposure alone during that time would have cost USF about $10 million, the school estimates.

"The oil spill helped raise the visibility of the school," said Jackie Dixon, current dean of the marine science program. "That recognition means a permanent increase in the reputation of the college and university."

It also exposed students to an ultimate hands-on experience.

"I think there will be work as a result of this for a long time," said Holbrook.

• • •

There is plenty to do, said Murawski and Hogarth.

Even with all the research that has been done, many of the spill's effects are still unknown. Neither researcher thinks there's an adequate monitoring system available for deepwater wells. Neither feels comfortable with existing safeguards.

"We've got to be prepared," Hogarth said. "I'm just not sure we are."

Both mentioned spills that have happened since — in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Nigeria and Venezuela.

They also both mentioned plans, across the globe, to drill more.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

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