Designing Science in a Crisis: The
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
P A U L T . A N A S T A S *
C Y N T H I A S O N I C H - M U L L I N *
B E C K Y F R I E D
Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, Washington, DC
In a crisis, there is little room for prolonged debate or
hesitation. Decisions can yield tremendous consequences
and time is of the essence.
The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, like many
disasters before it, challenged the scientific community to
more than a dozen federal agencies and the private and
As teams worked together to respond to what President
Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America
has ever faced”, scientists were denied the luxury of lengthy
These two papers are just a small piece of a much larger
story about designing the best possible science during an
In a crisis, scientists face a unique set of challenges:
• Realized or potential adverse consequences
• Significant uncertainties and unknowns
• An urgent time frame for decisions and actions
Throughout the DWH spill, there was a direct threat of
oil reaching shoreline ecosystems, harming aquatic species,
were also potential indirect concerns associated with re-
worked with interagency teams to address these immediate
threats without losing sight of the secondary, yet equally
The ongoing disaster also presented extraordinary
challenges and unknowns. The combination of the spill’s
depth at sea and distance from shore was unprecedented.
The spill’s elusive flow rate and unpredictable cessation
amidst these challenges and under urgent time pressure
for three months.
EPA worked to uphold its commitment to scientific integri-
the best possible work, EPA designed a crisis science
framework around three fundamental elements.
the first spill in the Gulf of Mexico to require a response.
Searching for lessons learned from events like the Exxon
Valdez and Ixtoc spills was an important first step. Scientists
also turned to previously published analyses such as those
conducted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (3) to
learn as much as possible from the existing body of response
work within the Agency and engaged academic institutions,
especially those along the Gulf coast, to take advantage of
ongoing research and avoid duplication of effort.
the specific needs of the crisis response. There were a myriad
of scientifically interesting questions surrounding the DWH
oil spill. EPA scientists needed to prioritize only those
This is why EPA, with its partners, implemented air, water,
and sediment monitoring regimes. This is also why inter-
agency scientists conducted daily monitoring of dissolved
oxygen levels, organism (rotifer) mortality, and particle size.
To understand the impact and effectiveness of dispersant
use, EPA conducted comparative toxicity tests (4) that
informed actions and decisions. The testing for dioxin
formation described in this journal was undertaken on the
The third element was working to ensure the highest
Corresponding authors e-mail: email@example.com (P.T.A.) or
Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 9250–9251
92509ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY / VOL. 44, NO. 24, 201010.1021/es103700xNot subject to U.S. Copyright. Publ. 2010 Am. Chem. Soc.
Published on Web 11/12/2010
delivery within the time constraints of the crisis. It was an
data to responders and the public. EPA scientists imple-
mented quality controls, quality assurance protocols, and
data management processes to address this critical need. In
cooperation with federal partners, EPA posted thousands of
data points on the Internet in an unprecedented effort to
make data available as quickly as possible.
The two papers published in this issue are examples of
EPA’s efforts to address an important scientific question in
the context of these unique elements of crisis science.
At the outset, it was not clear whether dioxin formation
at sea could, in fact, be measured. The first paper describes
EPA’s effort to measure dioxins, which ultimately required
detonation sites on landsfor use at sea.
The second paper provides context and meaning for the
reported measurements. EPA scientists conducted a screen-
residents on the mainland, and fish ingestion exposures.
Designing and implementing the tests described here
of the best available information. Despite challenges, these
tests were vital to the pursuit of asking and answering the
will continue to be written and evaluated over the coming
years. Whether and to what extent the response community
succeeded or failed can only be determined in retrospect.
the avoidable, we will again be left to manage unintended
(1) Aurell, J.; Gullett, B. K. Aerostat sampling of PCDD/PCDF
2010, 44, DOI 10.1021/es103554y.
(2) Schaum, J.; Cohen, M.; Perry, S.; Artz, R.; Draxler, R.; Frithsen,
of risks due to dioxin emissions from burning oil from the BP
Deep Water Horizon Gulf of Mexico spill. Environ. Sci. Technol.
2010, 44, DOI 10.1021/es103559w.
Effects; Committee on Understanding Oil Spill Dispersants:
Life Studies, National Research Council of the National Acad-
emies, The National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2005.
(4) U.S. EPA. EPA’s Toxicity Testing of Dispersants. http://www.
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