Researchers from California’s Department of Fish and Game are sending reinforcements to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
For two weeks, Judd Muskat has been holed up in the town of Houma in Louisiana. He hasn’t seen much of it.
He’s one of several people the state of California has loaned to BP’s oil control efforts. Muskat’s specialty in the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response is geographic information systems. With a private company in San Diego, he helped build one such system specifically for oil spills at sea.
"Together we developed this specialized remote sensing package that is specifically designed for detailed mapping of oil slicks on the ocean surface," Muskat says.
Near the spill’s center, BP has used dispersants - chemicals that break up and remove oil. Muskat sends up planes to collect images. "We’ve been flying over before they disperse and fly over after they disperse to see how much oil is actually removed from the surface," Muskat says.
Muskat says some more primitive tools give responders a sense of the oil’s boundaries on water – but not much more than that. "You don’t really know if what you’re looking at is just a few molecules thick or the thickness of a couple of nickels."
The software used by oil specialists in the department of Fish and game can tell the difference. "We can discern sheen – like the rainbow sheen you see in the parking lot after it rains – from the really thick stuff," Muskat says.
That’s helped people skimmer operators know where to go, and it’s helped target sprays of the dispersant chemicals. Louisiana and other states have oil response teams too. But because 20 years of oil transfer fees has paid for California’s team,
Muskat says it’s bigger, and it’s equipped with pretty advanced tools. "We’re pretty unique. It’s usually tens of people. But certainly not hundreds. Not like California," he says.
BP or the ultimate responsible party will foot the bill for California state staffers helping out in Louisiana; right now there’s no end in sight. Muskat says he could remain in the Gulf Coast region for another month.