Two months after Peru’s worst ever environmental coastline disaster, scientists are calling for Peru to end its reliance on oil.
Scientists and authorities are assessing the damage’s extents, according to the scientific journal Nature. Reports have found the oil spread to more than 25 beaches, reaching more than 41 kilometers of coastline. Deyvis Huamán, a conservation biologist with Peru’s National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State (SERNANP) in Lima, said the destruction was astonishing and a tragedy. Such spread of oil is unprecedented in the country and in recent history.
No one in Peru was prepared for the oil spill, Peruvian environmental lawyer Carmen Heck said. Peru is a large fishing country and has one of the most productive seas on the planet, so the oil will drastically impact the environment and the livelihoods of residents. Many fish and other aquatic animals are expected to perish as a result of the oil spreading. It is unclear to authorities, researchers, and locals as to how the oil moved so far so quickly.
Most recent reports found beaches have been tarred, pollution has reached three protected marine reserves, and more than 1,000 seabirds were coated with oil. The issue has raised the question of who pays for environmental crimes during the climate crisis and what can be done to prevent similar ones. Environmentalists are calling for a decreased reliance on oil within the South American country, but no laws have been put in place to achieve that yet. Under Peru’s strict liability law, the Spanish energy company Repsol that manages the oil refinery where the spill came from is ultimately responsible for the spill. It is unclear how payment will occur, when the oil spill will be cleaned up, and if the wildlife will ever return to normal.
Ananya Sen Gupta’s entire career may have looked very different had she not serendipitously stopped to pet a colleague’s dog one day as a postdoctoral researcher in Massachusetts. The dog’s owner connected Sen Gupta with a marine chemist who was seeking a data scientist like her to make sense of unknown compounds in the 2010 BP oil spill.
“In his signature way of awesome honesty, he said, ’You are perfect for the job because you don’t understand chemistry at all!’” she recalled.
Sen Gupta successfully “fingerprinted” that spill, and has been looking at the environment as a data problem ever since. Today, as anassistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa, she still lends her computational skills to environmental efforts.
Hear Sen Gupta describe her work in kid-friendly terms.
Sen Gupta helps a colleague in environmental engineering analyze harmful pollutants in the air and studies the spread of disease-causing pathogens with an environmental health professor. With two physicists, she’s developing algorithms to find high energy events in the Earth’s radiation belts and identifying patterns of particles in the Martian ionosphere.
“I think of myself more as an applied mathematician, honestly,” she said.
While her collaborators see the data through the specific knowledge of their fields, Sen Gupta only learns what she must to develop useful tools. To identify the problem and understand the data, she listens to the experts and takes detailed notes, which she later translates into her own language: mathematics.
She is then able to build algorithms that identify patterns in the datasets, which are far too large for manual processing. Because she does not know what her algorithms should find, they are essentially free from the confirmation bias field experts might carry. Thus, Sen Gupta’s objectivity can add great credibility to a researcher’s findings; recall the marine chemist’s excitement at finding a chemistry novice all those years ago.
“Sometimes not knowing is a good thing, because it leads to discovery,” she said.
Listen to Sen Gupta’s metaphor comparing mathematics to a verbal language.
Environmental pollutants and pathogens tend to have complex boundaries that are difficult to define mathematically. Sen Gupta said applying existing models and equations correctly is a skill in itself, but the nature of environmental research lets her work from scratch, too.
“What inevitably happens is when apply something existing to a new problem, it starts well, and then it hits a ceiling,” she said. “To crack that ceiling I have to invent something.”
She makes the majority of her code for those inventions open source, encouraging further discovery from others who can directly use her algorithms.
Though today she is busy teaching and conducting defense-related research on underwater sonar, Sen Gupta said if she could clone herself, she would devote more time to environmental issues, perhaps those related to climate change.
Since she cannot solve every problem on her own, though, she calls for more interaction between other data scientists and environmental researchers.
Learn how a seemingly aimless conversation about coffee and tea came to inform Sen Gupta’s environmental research.
As she sees it, there is unlimited potential for what problems computer engineering can help solve. But such collaborations cannot occur unless experts in vastly different fields come together.
“I would hope that, not just me, but all the data scientists on campus and all the environmental scientists on campus would basically get together in a local coffeeshop, in some happy hour, just sit down and chat about their pet peeves and hopes and dreams,” Sen Gupta said. “Because that would just lead to so much new science.”
***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***
TransCanada, the company that owns both pipelines, shut down the Keystone Pipeline last Thursday morning at 6 am after detecting a drop in pressure, indicating a leak. About 5,000 barrels of oil spilled onto privately owned land roughly 200 miles north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The company is still investigating the cause of the pipeline’s rupture.
Just three days after the oil spill, Nebraska’s Public Service Commission decided the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline’s route through Nebraska. Caving to pressure from Nebraska’s conservative legislators as well as industry and labor groups, the five-person commission agreed to allow the pipeline to cross through Nebraska. However, the pipeline must follow an alternative route. While the pipeline will enter and exit the state in the originally proposed locations, the commission will require its route to follow an existing pipeline’s path. This change will make responding to leaks more efficient according to regulators.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 10-25 million gallons of oil spill each year. Not only do oil spills destroy habitat, kill plants and animals, and compromise agriculture, they also threaten public heath by contaminating drinking water and degrading air quality.
The pipeline, located in north-central Worth County, was first discovered to have ruptured on Wednesday morning. Since then, clean up crews have managed to remove roughly 18 percent of the petroleum product despite high winds and heavy snowfall, according to a Thursday morning interview with Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Jeff Vansteenburg. Vansteenburg said that the diesel fuel and contaminated snow are being taken to a facility in Minneapolis, Minnesota while the remaining contaminated soil will be moved to a landfill near Clear Lake, Iowa.
Vansteenburg reported that the diesel fuel did not reach the nearby Willow Creek and wildlife reserve. The cause of the leak is still under investigation.
Magellan Midstream Partners, an Oklahoma-based company, owns the pipeline, which stretches through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Last October, another pipeline operated by Magellen Midstream Partners ruptured and released anhydrous ammonia, resulting in the evacuation of 23 homes and the death of one person near Decatur, Nebraska. The company was also fined over $45,000 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 after roughly 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into a Milford, Iowa creek.
The Worth County spill is the largest diesel fuel spill since 2010 according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Since 2010, 807 spills have been reported to the administration causing an estimated $342 million in property damages and spewing 3 million gallons of refined oil products into the environment.
President Trump signed executive actions on Tuesday reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Ed Fallon is the director of Bold Iowa, an organization fighting the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipeline projects. Fallon said, “We’ve been saying all along it’s not a question of if a pipeline will leak, it’s a question of when and where and how bad it will be.”
“According to PHMSA, the agency has 533 inspectors on its payroll. That works out to around one inspector for every 5,000 miles of pipe. A government audit in October  found that that PHMSA is behind on implementing new rules. It has 41 mandates and recommendations related to pipeline safety that await rulemaking.”
Luke Smith, a senior in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, details his research on an ecosystem’s ability to naturally clean oil through a process called phytoremediation.