U professors’ oil spill solution for rivers has fallen on deaf ears

John Gulliver and Vaughn Voller designed a model to be used if a sizable spill were to occur on a river.

Luke Feuerherm

In the summer of 1992, a train traveling across a bridge over the Nemadji River, a tributary of Lake Superior, derailed, sending several of its cars into the river and spilling 34,000 gallons of crude oil extracts into the water. After the spill, University of Minnesota professor John Gulliver went to work monitoring the chemicals as they moved downstream. Gulliver was responsible for tracking and predicting the spread of oil. To help design a model that could track the spill as it rushed downstream, Gulliver tapped colleague Vaughan Voller because of his expertise in two-dimensional models, which were used to track the spread of oil. Together, the two designed a model that Gulliver said could be used if a sizable spill, one comparable in scope to the current Gulf of Mexico spill, were to occur on a river. Gulliver said that after the cleanup effort on the Nemadji River, he contacted several groups about river spill modeling, including the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but found little interest at the time. âÄúOil spills on rivers are not of interest to them,âÄù Gulliver said. âÄúIt is a model waiting for a big spill to happen.âÄù Gulliver may try again to contact organizations about his model since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in a demand for industry precautions. When asked about how the Gulf spill is being handled, Gulliver said, âÄúI am surprised they are down there when they donâÄôt know how to close this leak âĦ itâÄôs flabbergasting.âÄù The Gulf leak is currently capped by a dome that is collecting about 10,000 barrels a day, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said in an interview on the ABC news show âÄúThis Week.âÄù Prior to the dome, a government task force estimated that between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels were spilling each day. BP failed in previous attempts at stopping the leak by capping the ruptured pipe with a funnel and plugging it with golf balls and shredded tires. It is clear BP greatly underestimated the amount of oil that had being leaking, Gulliver said. âÄúThere is outrage in the engineering and science community that they are not being truthful with the public when they know the truth,âÄù he said. Recently BP stopped estimating the oil spillâÄôs rate and has begun deferring to the government for calculations. From oil to the U University of Minnesota professor Justin Revenaugh also has a history with oil research. After graduating from college, Revenaugh worked two stints totaling 18 months on ShellâÄòs exploration team. During his time with the oil company, deep sea exploration was an emerging practice but not common. Revenaugh, a sonar expert, used the technology to detect how much oil is at a site to help value the area before companies placed their bids. During his time with Shell, Revenaugh said employees were always aware of the competition between companies to find and retrieve oil at the lowest rates. âÄúThe focus is always on finding and producing the oil and gas,âÄù Revenaugh said, âÄúand they tried to do it in a safe fashion, but there is not a lot of emphasis put on what happens when things go wrong âĦ [the oil industry has] not been particularly adept at having backup plans.âÄù He also said it was common for companies to poach employees from other companies to get a leg up in research. Researchers leaving the field are sworn to secrecy, which prevented Revenaugh from publishing his work and when he became a professor. Inevitably, what ended his time with Shell was the companyâÄôs unwillingness to pursue research that didnâÄôt have an immediate industry application. âÄúIt didnâÄôt take them particularly long to convince me I didnâÄôt want to stay,âÄù he said. âÄúI had really little input in what I was asked to do âĦ They donâÄôt waste money on anything they see as scientifically interesting, but not necessarily productive. ThatâÄôs one of the great things about academia: You are allowed to chase your curiosity some. And with the oil companies there was no curiosity chasing.âÄù In an interview on CBSâÄô âÄúFace the Nation,âÄù Allen estimated that the efforts to contain the leak are likely to continue into the fall. Revenaugh said it could be December before the leak has stopped and after that there is no real means of repairing the Gulf to its âÄúpre-spill condition.âÄù Gulliver agreed, adding that after stopping the leak there are long-term problems that may dwarf current concerns. âÄúThere are a lot of secondary effects that right now people arenâÄôt thinking about,âÄù Gulliver said. âÄúFirst things first, they need to stop the oil.âÄù