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UNH and the spill

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

TNH Staff

Published: Friday, October 8, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 16:02

Oil Spill

Associated Press


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."

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