Daily Iowan: UI Students, Professor to Travel, Research Gulf Oil Spill

Monday, June 21, 2010

By Ryan Roccaforte
Daily Iowan

Two University of Iowa students and a UI professor will travel to Louisiana today to understand how to remedy marshlands that have been heavily affected by the BP oil spill.

The group members, who will conduct research in Louisiana for five days, will work in collaboration with Louisiana State University Professor Eugene Turner.

UI engineering Professor Jerry Schnoor said that should the marshlands die from oil toxicity, he and the students are conducting studies to determine if they could be replanted and restored using native plants.

“We will use grasses native to Louisiana to restore the natural structure and function of the ecosystem,” he said.

To obtain the data, they must collect three compulsory samples: a pure oil sample from BP, a contaminated marsh sample, and a pure marsh sample, said Elliott Beenk, one of the students participating in the study.

These samples will be shipped back to the W.M. Keck Phototechnology Laboratory in the Seamans Center. Once the researchers return, they will test the efficacy of the plant, spartina alterniflora, in biodegrading the oil gathered in the marshlands.

The oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico started when a BP oil rig exploded on April 20, causing an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil to spew into the Gulf daily — 12 times more than the original estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

The trip is funded by the UI through Schnoor, who said he will apply for additional funds from the National Science Foundation.

The UI, although a long way from the Gulf of Mexico, is an example of what Turner refers to as the “invisible university.”

“Academicians have relationships that transcend institutional structures — relationships built on trust, mutual interest, and shared responsibility in the common good,” Turner said. “But something useful gets done when goodwill is allowed to flourish and without a pre-defined outcome.”

Aaron Gwinnup, a graduate student in environmental engineering going on the trip, has worked with both Schnoor and Turner in the past, while Beenk was recently accepted to the UI’s SROP/McNair summer research program for undergraduates — which allowed him to accompany his mentor, Schnoor, on this trip.

Schnoor said both students have an strong sense for what should be considered environmentally right, and they understand the Gulf oil spill has caused damage to more than just a business plan.

“I find it humorous that we’re set on off-shore drilling under the premise of energy security and protecting our country with the current outcome being the worst environmental accident in our nation’s history,” Beenk said.

The “accident” has put the livelihood of estuaries and marshlands in jeopardy, and it has yet to show any signs of letting up.

“In so many ways, they provide eco-services by cleaning our water, providing a habitat for fish and shrimp, and buffering against an array of catastrophic events from hurricanes to oil spills,” Gwinnup said.

Their research may help bring familiarity to the unsolved issues at hand.

“One point of doing science is to bring clarity to complex situations,” Turner said. “It is hard to do that without experiments and field examinations, and this project involves both.”

If nothing else, this will provide an outcome that has the possibility to benefit two states separated by nearly 1,000 miles.

“We don’t know what — or if — this effort will generate new information, but it looks like a good thing to do for a small amount of effort,” Turner said. “Iowa and Louisiana will learn a bit more from each other, and maybe we’ll have something new to share at the end.”