Lessons learned from Gulf War oil spill

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Efforts to contain the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continue. So far, BP has been unable to stop the flow of crude oil from its damaged rig and well. Some oil has washed ashore in Louisiana. To better understand the impact this disaster could have, we're looking back at the much bigger spill during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Marco Werman speaks with geochemist Jacqueline Michel, about whether any lessons learned could help with the current disaster.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is making new political waves in Washington today. If New Jersey Senator, Robert Menendez, has his way, companies responsible for such spills would have to pay a lot more in potential damages. The current limit for companies like BP, which operated the sunken drill rig, is 75 million dollars. Menendez calls that a drop in the bucket. And he is proposing a bill to retroactively raise that limit to 10 billion dollars. Meanwhile BP says it could take up to three months to staunch the flow of oil from its wrecked drilling platform. Some oil has already washed ashore in Louisiana and Gulf Coast residents are girding for a potential disaster. To better understand the impact this spill could have on the region, it's useful to think back to a much bigger spill in the Persian Gulf. This one happened in 1991. Dr. Jacqueline Michel is a geochemist and President of Research Planning. That's a science technology firm that's part of the federal government's response to the current spill. We tracked her down at the Unified Command Center in Houma, Louisiana to speak to her about the long term effects of the Persian Gulf Spill 19 years ago.

DR. JACQUELINE MICHEL: The long term effects were very significant. There was no shoreline cleanup, essentially, over the 800 kilometers that the oil - - in Saudi Arabia. And so when we went back in to do quantitative survey in 2002 and 2003, there was a million cubic meters of oil sediment remained then 12 years after the spill.

WERMAN: And is that just because of the phenomenal quantity of oil that spilled out that these long term impacts were so evident? Or was it because there wasn't a cleanup?

MICHEL: Both reasons. It was a large amount of oil that stranded very heavily on the coast. And this was a kind of a different setting because the oil got trapped into a very large bay and it was never allowed to keep moving and so it just piled in. I remember sitting on the shore and looking out and not being able to see clean water, I could just see oil as far as I could see from the shoreline. And the second factor was that the oil penetrated much more deeply into the intertidal sediment than normal because those sediments there have a lot of crab burrows, and the oil penetrated deep, sometimes 30, 40 centimeters, you know a couple of feet, into the mud of these tidal flats. There's no way to get it out now. So it has had long term impact.

WERMAN: Well you talk about the Persian Gulf having this quality or this closed bay there, which is one of the reasons this oil stayed there and did this damage. I think of the Gulf of Mexico, it's like a giant closed bay. You're going to probably see the same things? Or what's to be done to avoid that?

MICHEL: The differences are that he oil was trapped mostly in a big bay, not just a - - gulf, but a sub part of that where it filled in and it was never able to get out. Gulf of Mexico - - this current is likely to spread the oil over larger areas. So there aren't too many places where the oil is going to just keep piling into one little bay or even a large bay. Good news one way, but bad news another way because then the oil can spread over a larger area.

WERMAN: Right. What keeps you in this business? It seems to me that this is a really dirty job.

MICHEL: Yes, but we come here a part of a team. We're trying to solve the problem. Our group has been doing oil spill response since 1976. What we want to do is remove enough oil so that we can increase the rate of recovery versus leaving the oil in place or being too aggressive and causing more damage from trying to get all the oil up.

WERMAN: Having seen so many oil spills in so many different places around the world, Dr. Michel. What's your expectation for what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now? It's said to be potentially the worse environmental disaster in U.S. history.

MICHEL: You know this spill, because of the duration, and the area that it is located in, rich fisheries, rich coastal communities, it's hard to predict. The worst case is pretty bad. This is definitely unprecedented in terms of the potential magnitude, not just on the ecology, but on the people who rely on coastal resources.

WERMAN: Geochemist Jacqueline Michel speaking to us from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill's unified command center in Houma, Louisiana, thanks very much.

MICHEL: Thank you and goodbye.