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Oil spill creates research opportunities for students

The Deep Horizon oil spill has caused an as-yet immeasurable amount of damage to Forida’s ecology and economy, but for UNF’s coastal biology program, and ones like it across the state, the tragedy has also become a teachable moment.

In light of the tragic spill, research funding from BP and an increased awareness regarding coastal issues may strengthen biology departments in state universities, said director of coastal biology, Courtney Hackney.

Short Term
BP has dispersed about $10 million for research to the state-funded Florida Institute of Oceanography.

The institute comprises several universities and some non-for-profit research groups and was created to give students field research experience while in college.

The $10 million will fund immediate research to establish a standard for comparison in areas which the oil has yet to affect.

Without baseline data about marine life in areas where oil could spread, scientists would not be able to gauge how severely the oil affects a population.

Baseline data facilitates research and streamlines any future litigation that will arise over the spill.

“For instance, people have said ‘ok, all these populations have been affected by the Exxon Valdez, whereas Exxon said: Well… you don’t know that,’” Gelsleichter said.

In some cases, increasing research opportunities may spill over into the private sector.

“If I get one of these grants, I’ll have to hire extra people. All my students have projects; there’s no body left to work on these kinds of projects,” he said.

Newly created research opportunities will nonetheless be a boon for UNF coastal biology. Students will do about 90% of the research that UNF has proposed to the FIO, Hackney said.

Some schools have committed money to begin research before the FIO distributes grants in a few weeks.

Joe Butler, department chair and biology professor, has already begun research with students in the gulf.

Long Term
Hackney said even a three-month-old deep sea oil geyser can have its silver lining, if only a glint.

“This just brings home the points that the people working on the coast have been saying,” he said. “We don’t know enough about the coast to know what’s there, much less the damage caused by something like a spill.”

With better regulation, the EPA could have prevented the use of oil dispersants, which cause more harm by allowing oil to mix with water and distribute evenly throughout the water table, Hackney said.

If the oil was on the surface, like it was before dispersants were added, it would be easy to calculate the spill’s impact, but scientists do not know enough about the gulf currents to estimate where deep-water oil will travel, he said.

“It’s the unknown part of this that scares us the most,” Hackney said.

As the spill’s long term effects surface, so will more opportunities for funded research.

Gelsleichter expects BP to pump out another $90 million to $100 million for long term research.

He said he plans on teaching a class on environmental toxicology. Students will utilize baseline samples Gelsleichter’s colleagues have collected and toxic samples being collected right now for lab work and to complete research.

Florida State legislators almost disbanded the FIO two years ago, but the spill has brought a renewed awareness and, with that, university funding.

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  • E

    Eva CampbellOct 5, 2010 at 7:41 am

    oil spills should be controlled as soon as possible to prevent environmental damage.”*

  • M

    Merle SavageJul 18, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Great the oil has stopped for now, however,Crude oil continues to invade the Gulf; as BP, the US Government, and other official agencies monitoring the toxic crude, continues to FIDDLE. That is what I called the Dance of Deliberate Deception. No one will come forward with the intestinal fortitude, and declare the obvious – that crude oil is toxic to breathe. I have been told by OSHA that a medical study cannot be conducted until after 6 months of exposure. WHAT? There have been 21 years since the exposure of the crude oil in Prince William Sound, and no one is listening. So, after 6 months of workers in the gulf breathe in the crude oil, a study can be conducted? That leads me to believe that the government is holding up the rug, while BP sweeps known reports under the same rug, and the other agencies conduct the Dance of Deliberate Deception on top of the rug.

    President Obama, how about admitting that the crude oil is toxic, and demand BP provide respirators for the oil cleanup workers, and compensation for the Gulf unemployment caused by the disaster.

    In 1989 Exxon told the cleanup workers the same story, that the crude oil is not toxic. Some of us are living proof of the toxic exposure, and many others have died. Please view the YouTube video, and help get the message to Gulf residents, BP crude oil cleanup workers, and President Obama. Respirators need to be supplied to oil cleanup crews.
    Thank you.