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 Short Headline:  Oil Slick  (30 Character Max - Displays in News block)

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 Display Date:   2010-10-01

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The Gulf Coast oil spill has been called the greatest natural disaster in United States history. Eleven workers were killed in the blast, which ultimately leaked nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The leak is capped, but the disaster wages on. In the spirit of “do all that you can,” the Hamline community aims to understand and take action against the devastating ramifications of this deadly tragedy. 


Taylor Fredin ’14 experienced anything but a typical beach vacation when she visited the Alabama coast last June with her father, Tracy Fredin, director of Hamline’s Center for Global Environmental Education. Hazmat workers replaced swimmers. Oily hermit crabs skittered along the beach, and sticky tar balls the consistency of silly putty melted into blobs on the shore. “There was sheen on the water,” she recalls. “Like rainbow puddles you see on the street.” But unlike rainbow puddles, the vision was unnatural and deadly—to wildlife, to the environment, and to the livelihood of thousands of people.

On the night of April 20, the Deepwater Horizon rig that was drilling an exploration well for British Petroleum (BP) exploded and caught fire 45 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. Days later, it sank and began gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico—an estimated 4.9 million barrels in 87 days. BP successfully capped the broken well in September, but the extent of the damage is unknown.

The environmental impact

The same week BP cemented the well shut, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that all but 26% of the leaked oil had evaporated, dispersed, or been removed from the water. The remaining oil amounted to 1.2 million barrels, a volume nearly five times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Hamline biology professor Bonnie Ploger says Prince William Sound is still affected by the Exxon Valdez spill. Oil remains evident under rocks along its beaches, and the amazing numbers of herring that used to swarm the area have all but disappeared. “Disease may have killed the fish,” Ploger says. “But the reason the disease had such a big impact could be that the fish were weakened by oil in their environment. In one study, herring that were exposed to crude oil were more vulnerable to viral infection because the oil suppressed their immune systems.”

Ploger, who added a case study on the Gulf Coast spill to her “Biodiversity and Conservation Biology” course, worries about its consequences on Brown Pelicans—the same bird colonies she lived with for months at a time while conducting her doctoral research on the Gulf. The birds spend years perfecting the art of plunge diving—taking down fast-moving prey by diving into the water from flight. In the event of an oil spill, however, they could dive to their deaths. “All of their feathers get oiled,” she says. “They lose their buoyancy and are in danger of drowning.”

Migratory birds also are at risk. “Oil below the surface could kill the organisms that many birds eat, creating a food shortage,” says Ploger. “Even if food is available, toxic compounds from oil may get into the food supply, which could cause immediate harm or deteriorate the birds’ health over time.”

John Downing ’73, a biology professor at Iowa State University and president-elect of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), has researched the Gulf’s “dead zones,” where oxygen levels are so low most organisms can’t survive. He worries about the 1.8 million gallons of dispersants that were sprayed into the water to disperse the oil.

Dispersants, which are made with the same chemicals found in skin creams and household cleaners, break down the oil. Tiny organisms then eat it and naturally eliminate it from the ecosystem. No one has ever sprayed this much dispersant, however, and the long-term biological impact is unknown. “Many people are as concerned about the dispersants as they are about petroleum damage,” says Downing.

ASLO, which has a policy office in Washington D.C., is helping to connect the government with expert scientists. Downing hopes that Congress will provide funding for further research. “We don’t know enough about the effects of massive pollution on marine ecosystems,” he says.

Closer to the ground were the Fredins, who surveyed the damage with the Alabama Clean Water Partnership. “In our visit, the biggest anxiety was that of the unknown,” says Tracy Fredin. “We could feel the constant flow of oil—every day, every minute. You realize that this is people’s livelihood. It’s tied to the whole economy of the area.”

The economic impact

Attorney Brian Toder ’86 worked as part of the trial team that prosecuted the Exxon case in 1994. Toder helped establish that the captain was drinking double scotches on the rocks before he crashed the oil tanker into a reef in the middle of the night. He also investigated Exxon’s policy of working its people “to death.” “The mate on watch had been up for 20-some hours,” Toder says. “He was totally burned out.”

Toder still gets together with other lawyers who worked on the case, including Brian O’Neill, an attorney at Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis, who has spent his career prosecuting Exxon. O’Neill recently told Congress that if you walk into a rural bar in Alaska today, people talk as though the spill happened last week. Some fishing communities are half the size that they once were. The price of fish from oiled areas plummeted, boats and fishing permits lost value, and the herring at Prince William Sound never recovered. Hard feelings have been exacerbated by Exxon’s repeated court appeals that reduced punitive damages to a fraction of their original size.

Hamline law professor Steven Swanson has taught on the topic of oil pollution in international waters. He says it can be difficult to predict and prove future economic damages caused by an oil spill. After the Exxon Valdez spill, for example, Japanese consumers were hesitant to buy salmon from the United States, and the drop-off in spending lasted for years. “Some attribute it to a glut in the international market, but I think a good argument can be made that they avoided the Alaskan market because of the oil,” says Swanson. “Certainly that was the plaintiffs’ argument.” 

Claimants should have an easier time collecting damages this time around, thanks to a $20 billion trust set up by BP. The fund will compensate claimants for property damage, clean-up costs, and lost earnings. Fisherman should be able to recover damages. “But if somebody owns a resort 10 miles off the coast, then I don’t know,” says Swanson.

BP has demonstrated deep pockets thus far, according to Hamline business professor Fahima Aziz. BP reports that it has paid approximately $6.1 billion to cap the well, clean up the spill, and pay compensation claims—an amount on par with its first quarter profits of about $6 billion. “Right now, this has not made much of a [financial] dent in the company,” says Aziz. Though she qualifies that the dent could become more substantial if BP’s stock price stays down and profitability figures dip.

The Hamline impact

Hamline law students could become involved in Gulf Coast litigation through practicum course placements. Law professor Cathryn Deal has sent students to work in the Orleans Public Defenders Office in Louisiana where oil spill litigation is now consolidated.

Students could receive as much as a semester’s worth of academic credit for their work in a New Orleans law office, nonprofit, or government entity. “Students might help unemployed fishermen and others with claims for damages, assist in the administration of relief payments, represent wildlife organizations in seeking coastal restoration assistance, and similar tasks,” says Deal.

Hamline is getting involved in other ways as well. Faculty members are looking for spring break volunteer trips for students and service learning opportunities for practicing K–12 teachers. Professors are incorporating the spill into their curriculum to analyze its environmental, economic, and social ramifications.

The Center for Global Environmental Education will deepen its partnership with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a marine laboratory in Alabama. “People feel empathy for the problem and want to help,” says Tracy Fredin. “And it affects them—seafood will cost more, there are transportation issues, and there are numerous connections to the global economy.

During their June survey of the Alabama coast, the Fredins met with Allison Jenkins, the statewide coordinator of the Alabama Clean Water Partnership. Jenkins uses an educational program on Alabama waterways that was developed by Tracy and the Center for Global Environmental Education. The interactive program features videos, virtual tours, and computer games, and staff members are adding a new module on the oil spill. It will appear at public information kiosks on the Gulf Coast beachfront and will connect to the Internet.

Jenkins has presented the program at Alabama teacher workshops, water festivals, and zoning board meetings. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s a perfect piece for students, but also for legislators and municipal officials. We want to send the message that the decisions we make matter. This is an easy way to help them understand.”

The social impact

Jenkins’ husband, Steve, is in charge of field operations for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. His team members are exhausted as they coordinate the Gulf response around the warehouse fires and fuel spills that normally occupy their time. “Right now they’re trying to figure out how clean is clean enough at the end of all this,” says Jenkins. “They may have to excavate six to eight feet of sand at the waterline.” 

Tourism in the area has dropped exponentially, despite celebrity efforts such as a July Jimmy Buffet concert to attract people to the area. People aren’t willing to chance a vacation on an oil-ridden beach. “Not all of the oil has washed in, but nobody knows where it’s gone,” says Jenkins. “Is it down there lurking, just waiting to come in with the next big storm? Or has it been broken down? There are so many questions. I don’t think anybody really knows.” 

Recent Congressional testimony noted that Alaskans experienced a host of social aftershocks from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. O’Neill, the longtime attorney on the Exxon case, reported that fishing-based communities saw an increase in divorces, bankruptcies, alcoholism, and depression.

That’s no surprise to Hamline sociology professor Melissa Embser-Herbert who taught the course, “Applied Sociology: The Social Dimensions of Disaster,” after Hurricane Katrina. Embser-Herbert says the trickle-down effects of environmental disasters are not always obvious, such as the stress they can cause on individual families.

Nevertheless, she says people are powerfully connected to their land—no matter how disaster-prone it might be. “You look at entire towns destroyed by a tornado,” she says. “And they say, ‘no, we’re going to rebuild. We’re not abandoning it,’ even though they know that there is a risk. People find a way to get through what may seem insurmountable.” 

Do All That You Can

The Gulf Coast oil spill presents another slippery slope into political turmoil, economic downfall, and environmental destruction. In short: it’s a big, oily mess. But we’re Pipers—we’re not afraid to get our hands greasy. Here are some ways you can help:

1. Volunteer with organizations such as the National Wildlife Fund ( or the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana ( You can become part of a surveillance team to monitor the impact of the spill on wildlife and habitat and/or help with clean-up efforts.

2. Take action. Ask your senator to support clean energy legislation, ride your bike instead of driving your car, and save energy at home by using wind, solar, or geothermal energy technologies (for more information, visit

3. Many of the birds affected by the Gulf Coast spill are migratory. Give them a place to stay—provide wildlife habitat in your own backyard.

4. Buy Gulf seafood. About one-third of the Gulf remains open to commercial fishermen, according to, a consumers’ guide to the green industry. Gulf fishermen are doing their best to provide safe, uncontaminated freshwater fish from these waters. The prices may be high, but your purchase will bolster the local economy and provide work for Gulf fishermen.

5. Raise awareness. Pass along these tips and spread the word about how to help.


By Michelle Bruch

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