UNH and the spill

A SPECIAL REPORT: How a school from the Granite State became involved in the disaster in the Gulf

By Thomas Gounley and Ryan Hartley
On October 8, 2010

  • The UNH Community Service Fair showcased groups like Waysmeet, Oxfam UNH and St. Thomas More Church. Ellen Stuart

Nancy Kinner remembers exactly where she was when she first heard about the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

"We were running a workshop up in Alaska - ‘Natural Resource Damage Assessment in the Arctic Waters: The Dialogue Begins,'" Kinner, the co-director of UNH's Coastal Response Research Center (CRRC) and professor of civil and environmental engineering, said in an interview last month. "There were a lot of responders there, and all of a sudden their phones started lighting up, basically."

Though Kinner and her team couldn't have recognized the true enormity of the incident at the time, they knew it was an event with serious implications.

"I was facilitating the meeting, and we had a moment of silence," she said. "It was serious, serious business. And we knew it was a rig fire. We did not know the extent of the leakage at that point."

As the head of a center that deals with oil spill preparedness, response, assessment and implementation of optimum spill recovery strategies, Kinner quickly became in demand. In the next few months, she was quoted in hundreds of publications, talked on numerous television news programs and testified before Congress three times.

But Kinner is just one example of UNH's involvement in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill. Across campus, numerous organizations have found themselves reacting to what President Obama dubbed "the greatest environmental disaster of its kind": a leak that spewed more than 60,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily for almost three months.

A vision of neutrality

Besides the CRRC, the nation's other oil spill research centers are located in Louisiana, Texas, California and Alaska- all oil-producing states. The CRRC stands out because it is the only center affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and because of its somewhat bizarre location at UNH. But its placement couldn't have been more deliberate.

"The idea for the CRRC was generated some years back as a result of a huge gap some in our office thought was not being filled," David Kennedy, acting assistant administrator for NOAA's National Ocean Service, said in the center's annual report. "There was a void in the nation relating to the lack of science behind oil spill response."

When NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration was looking for a location to put a center to fill that void, UNH stood out because it already had several NOAA centers. Also, New Hampshire's distance from active drilling locales was actually an advantage.

"The big advantage to having UNH is that we're not an oil state, and we're never going to be an oil state," Kinner said. "We bring tremendous credibility because our state isn't going to be reaping revenue or being hurt economically."

This, along with UNH's reputation for holding wide-open competitions to select the best researchers from around the world prompted NOAA to decide on UNH. The center was founded in 2004.

Since the spill, the CRRC has focused on bringing people together for numerous discussions to formulate the best response.

"[On one occasion], we brought together a group of 50 scientists and practitioners from around the country and the world to look at whether the use of dispersants was the best alternative as a trade-off for response," Kinner said. "Our job was to pull all those people together."

Getting people from both science and industry backgrounds to agree, while a country stood waiting, was a challenge.

"All of these things were incredibly charged," Kinner said. "You were having people who were in the thick of a media whirlwind, and in the thick of an emergency response where the president was involved."

However, Kinner believes that the center's UNH location had the desired effect.

"It was exactly like Kennedy envisioned it," Kinner said. "He really envisioned having this neutral place where people could talk about this. And you saw that."

Millions of barrels, millions of hits

The CRRC wasn't the only on-campus center fixated on the Gulf. UNH's Research Computing Center (RCC) has also seen one of its tools receive national attention.

The Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA), established by the RCC in partnership with NOAA and the CRRC, was recently acknowledged as one of the top 10 government websites by Government Computer News (GCN). ERMA's NOAA collaborators also received the 2010 NOAA Administrator's and Technology Transfer Award. 

The original prototype of ERMA was developed two and a half years ago to facilitate the response and management of oil spills. Through testing drills performed by NOAA, the software proved simple to operate, provided access to specific response data and produced customized maps that supported operational decisions. Shortly after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill began, the RCC worked tirelessly with NOAA to ensure that a version of ERMA specific to the Gulf of Mexico was redistributed online as soon as possible.      

A public version of the program launched in June at www.geoplatform.gov to communicate near-real-time information about the response to the public and garnered 3.4 million hits on its first day.

"ERMA's strength is that it puts all this data together and displays it in a meaningful way," Philip Collins, a programmer with the Research Computing Center, said. "You also don't have to be a GIS expert to operate the software."

Group members seemed pleased after receiving the accolades.  

"I was excited when I first heard about the award," Patrick Messer, the director of the RCC, said. "My staff has worked extremely hard on this project and is very deserving of the recognition."

While the RCC played a big role in ERMA's development, most of the program's data comes from NOAA.  

"NOAA and other federal agencies are the primary users of the software," Messer said.  "Our role was to support the application and provide any technical assistance as required."

GCN's website says that it will be holding an awards ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010 at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson's Corner. RCC programmer Robert St. Lawrence will be on hand to represent the center.

Looking beneath the surface

UNH's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) Joint Hydrographic Center has also been involved in mapping the spread of oil thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf.

On May 18, Larry Mayer, director of CCOM, participated in White House sponsored meeting on potential role academic institutions can play in response. He presented several slides detailing CCOM's previous successful effort detecting a gas plume about 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface off California, and proposed that the same sonar be used to detect the presence of oil below the surface of the water. The center was one of approximately 12 oceanographic facilities nationwide selected to assist with oil spill recovery.

On May 27, CCOM Research Assistant Professor Tom Weber, along with a graduate student, embarked on the NOAA research ship Gunter. Seven days later, on June 3, Mayer set out on the research ship Thomas Jefferson.

Both vessels mapped the spread of oil and took water samples. All told, CCOM researchers went on six cruises with NOAA vessels; Weber served as chief scientist on two of them.

The center also provided on-shore analysis of data and assisted with wellhead integrity, monitoring from mid-July (when the well was capped) to mid-August. At one point, Mayer was reporting to Secretary of Energy's Steven Chu's science review team three times per day.

And the center's involvement is not over.

"We have just been approached by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for input on the feasibility of using acoustic techniques for mapping oil on the seafloor or in the sediment," Weber said in an e-mail Thursday.

Analyzing the impacts - to people

Finally, UNH's Carsey Institute recently completed survey related to the oil spill as part of its "Community and Environment in Rural America" initiative.

The surveys, which focus on residents in two Gulf Coast parishes of Louisiana and three counties in Florida, feature questions such as "Has the oil spill affected you and your family's economic well-being?" and "What are the most serious impacts?" and "Who do you trust as a reliable source of information about the spill?"

"I sent out the data to our research team yesterday," Lawrence Hamilton, professor of sociology and senior fellow of the Carsey Institute, said Thursday in an e-mail. "Now the analysis stage starts…we should be writing the first reports later this fall."

For Kinner, "a whirlwind"

Kinner flew home from the workshop in Alaska the Friday following the oil rig explosion. Ironically, she was scheduled to appear on CNN the next day, but they canceled because, at the time, it didn't look like there was going to be a significant spill.

"But by Monday morning, things were quite different," Kinner said.

The next couple of months would be, as Kinner described, "a whirlwind."

In an article published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on May 6, just two weeks after the incident, UNH Media Relations specialist Beth Potier said that Kinner's interviews had been picked up by 320 outlets from around the world. Yesterday, Potier estimated that an updated number would be "at least 500." Kinner was featured in prominent publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and appeared on CNN's "The Situation Room" and PBS' "NewsHour."

Kinner was so popular that Media Relations had to deviate from normal procedures.

"Within a week she began getting up to 10 media requests a day," Potier said in an e-mail. "So Erika Mantz [Director of Media Relations] and I stepped in and began to triage the calls, having reporters contact us."

It wasn't only the media that came calling. Kinner ended up testifying before Congress three times.

"It takes a lot of work to do that," Kinner said. "You have to have 10 single-spaced pages of writing; very concise writing about what your points are that go into the congressional record. And then you have five minutes- no more- to talk, and you have to have prepared remarks."

In what is likely the most bizarre twist of UNH's involvement post-spill, Kinner, on one of those occasions, ended up sitting next to actor Kevin Costner, who was before Congress to promote an oil-water separator he had helped develop.

She wasn't exactly star-struck.

"I got to sit next to him," she said. "The only problem is, I don't watch movies, so I don't know him. I got the least out of it than anybody, from an enjoyment perspective."

Things wouldn't get less hectic for Kinner until mid-July, when the leak was capped and media requests died down. But that's not to say that the spill is no longer on her mind.

"It will define the rest of my career," Kinner said. "I'll spend the rest of my career working on issues that will have come to a head out of this spill, and out of those issues of how to make response and restoration better."

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