BATON ROUGE — LSU is helping the U.S. respond to hazards from environmental releases of oil and toxic chemicals. A team of seven researchers from the LSU College of the Coast & Environment, or CC&E, will be partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to provide primary emergency response to chemical hazards in support of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, according to CC&E press release.
NOAA has awarded $6.7M to Research Planning Inc., an environmental consulting firm that partners with the LSU team as part of the NOAA ProTech Oceans Task Order to help assess chemical hazards associated with oil and hazardous materials releases across the nation’s navigable waterways.
The LSU emergency responses team comprises Kevin Armbrust, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences; Ed Overton, emeritus professor of environmental sciences; Slawomir Lomnicki, associate professor of environmental sciences; Laura Basirico, Tammara Estes, and Roberto Wong, research associates in environmental sciences; and Tyler Mauney, CC&E’s manager of operations.
According to Armbrust, who is leading the LSU team, “LSU has provided a lot of unique expertise for this. We’ve dealt with everything from chlorine gas leaks out of industrial facilities to explosions at chemical plants to industrial intermediates that are used in manufacturing … and when there are spills from barges or trucks that can get into waterways.”
This five-year contract from NOAA has been renewed continually since 1984, when Overton joined LSU and started what would eventually become the Response and Chemical Hazard Assessment Laboratory.
“We didn’t have a formal name at first, but we were providing chemical hazard assessment to NOAA’s HAZMAT branch for oil and hazardous substances spilled in U.S. waters under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. Over time, HAZMAT evolved into NOAA’s Emergency Response Division,” Overton said.
In 2010, much of LSU CC&E’s emergency response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was conducted as part of this contract. More recently, CC&E has responded to incidents such as a large vessel grounding in Georgia, an industrial explosion in Texas, and a pipeline spill in California. These response efforts included sample analysis, consultations on how to handle the initial response, assessing what exactly was spilled, containing and removing spilled material, and determining where it was spreading into the environment.
In addition to providing primary emergency response to chemical hazards, under this contract, LSU has developed portions of the chemical response training that NOAA uses today, including the courses “The Science of Chemical Spill Releases” and “The Science of Oil Spills.”
When the team is not responding to emergencies or providing training, they are continually involved with developing additional response capability in the laboratory. The team runs scenarios and then, based on those results, work to refine and improve the response and detection capability.
“We’ve got to maintain the equipment and have it ready to analyze samples, if they come in. So, there's always continuous improvement activities underway,” Armbrust said. “NOAA uses many models to estimate how these spills will behave, so we are constantly challenging these models to test how well they actually will predict chemical behavior following a release.”
Overton attributes the successful partnership between LSU and NOAA for the past 36 years to the professors’ abilities to explain “chemical lingo” to non-chemists and being able to explain to the people in charge the hazards associated with the release or potential release of chemicals into the environment.
He concluded, “NOAA knows they can count on us when the going gets tough.”
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