Future Oil Spills May Be Avoided

A team of experts at MIT believes that instances such as the disastrous oil spill that affected the Gulf of Mexico a few months ago may be avoided in the future, provided that the necessary lessons are learned.

The chance of something like this happening ever again should be growing increasingly slimmer with each passing incident, the scientists say. However, this does not appear to be happening, and every disaster catches authorities on the wrong foot.

Speaking this Tuesday at an MIT symposium on the oil spill, experts said that emergency responders and authorities should from now on learn how to deal with such occurrences faster and more effectively.

The goal of this meeting was to unite three expert panels in giving an assessment of what happened in the Gulf, on what can be learned from all of it, and also on how the event affected people and ecosystems in the surrounding area.

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Center for Global Change Science, and the MIT Energy Initiative.

One of the main conclusions the panel members who attended the meeting arrived at is that emergency response tools should have been available from Day One.

In other words, they shouldn't have been developed as the efforts progressed. This translated into a lot of lost time, and in such cases time is always of the essence, especially in the first few days.

In the case of the BP oil spill however, the first real contamination prevention measures were only taken more than a week after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank, on April 22.

Another significant conclusion was that the efforts the federal government and BP engaged in, of deploying 850 miles of booms and 5,500 cleanup vessels, were largely inefficient.

All these capabilities failed to collect more than 3 percent of the total amount of oil that was released from the incident site. Some estimates place that amount at less than 1.5 percent.

Another thing that participants agreed upon is that the wrong feedback is being addressed by investigators looking to establish the underlying factors that led to catastrophe.

Operator errors or technical failures are the main target for investigators, but at the same time they ignore things such as systemic and management factors, which may have played an even more important role in the disaster.

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