As we know all too well from news headlines, human activity can have unintended results. Sometimes disaster strikes, as it did in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. An explosion on a drilling rig caused oil to gush into the ocean.
When an environmental disaster such as an oil spill happens, the response must be swift. Many different people are involved. They include highly educated experts, skilled tradespeople and physical laborers. Many questions have to be answered when such disasters occur. Who and what is threatened? How can we limit the damage and harm? What resources and people do we need?
In the example of a major oil spill, thousands of people are involved in the response. They might work for private companies or various levels of government — federal, state or local. And some are simply concerned citizens who volunteer their time out of concern for the environment.
Some workers are highly trained, such as engineers who try to figure out what went wrong. Environmental scientists try to protect the environment. Emergency response managers coordinate people and resources to protect communities and companies.
Others might be physical workers (or volunteers) who do things like wash the oil off of birds found on the beach. And then there are fishermen and private contractors who deploy booms on the ocean (booms are curtain-like devices that help trap and redirect oil).
Most of the experts who respond to environmental disasters have engineering or scientific training, says Edward Overton. Overton is the head of a federal chemical hazard assessment team for oil spills. He’s also a retired professor in the School of the Coast and Environment, at Louisiana State University.
“The engineering background is associated with rebuilding and understanding why the accident happened,” says Overton. “The scientific backgrounds are associated with understanding the impact on the environment and the ecology, and things of that nature.”
Environmental disasters are unpredictable. They can happen anywhere at anytime. And there can be large gaps in time between major disasters (fortunately!).
“Response to a spill is an episodic event rather than an ongoing event,” says Overton. “So between events… you’ve got to have something else to keep you occupied doing work.”
What opportunities do environmental scientists have for work between environmental disasters?
“Typically those [opportunities] are working for other types of environmental concerns — environmental consulting, environmental analysis, studying other aspects of the environment,” says Overton. “And what happens is that during a major event like [the Gulf of Mexico disaster] you have to set the ongoing stuff aside and you have to go out and get involved with the spill.”
People of all education and skill levels are needed when environmental disasters occur.
“There are lots of low-skilled jobs that are associated with the cleanup effort, just going out there and getting the oil up, for example,” says Overton. “[And] there are typically efforts to look at the damage associated with the spill or with an environmental incident. Those are typically the more high skilled jobs.
“Typically they would require at least a bachelor’s degree,” Overton says. “People running the [disaster response] programs typically have a PhD.”
Graduates of environmental science programs learn many different things. They are often generalists rather than specialists. This makes them effective in responding to environmental disasters, says Linda Lusby. She is a professor of environmental science.
Companies are starting to realize the value of investing money in prevention, by having an environmental expert on staff.
“The bigger companies are [spending money on prevention],” says Lusby. “They have someone there, because for them it’s worth it. A lawsuit over a spill is a lot more expensive than paying the salary of a person.”
Ali Gheith helps trains disaster response managers. He’s the director of an emergency and disaster management program at the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY).
Emergency response managers handle all kinds of disasters, says Gheith. These include human-caused environmental disasters like oil spills, natural disasters like earthquakes, or terrorist attacks.
“The approach to this has to be based on lessons learned and best practices,” says Gheith. “We learn from other states, other nations [and] how they responded, so we can minimize the damage. We cannot, for example, prevent a natural disaster from happening, but we can mitigate its effect on the community.
“You see a lot of interest now from the private sector for the continuity of operations component (COOP) of it,” says Gheith. “Many people in the private sector right now are sending students to come and study continuity of operations.” What this means is that private companies are concerned with how to keep their business running, and keep their employees safe, while they are responding to a major disaster.
Disaster response managers end up in many different places. But many of the same questions and challenges come up, regardless of the setting. How do you best protect people and property? How do you contain and respond to the damage already done? How do you prevent future incidents?
“You could work with the private sector, you could work with the feds, you could work with the state, you could work with the local government, and you can work with local communities,” says Gheith.
Unfortunately, Lusby expects there to be a growing number of environmental crises in the future.
“It’s because we’ve really pushed the environment, in almost all perspectives, to the limit,” says Lusby. “And when you’ve weakened something so much, it starts to go.”
Those alarming words are nothing to cheer. But they do mean there will probably be plenty of work to keep environmental scientists, engineers, emergency response managers and many others very busy in the years to come.