FIU responds to Gulf oil crisis

By Susan Feinberg

The oil spill caused by an explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grow, and could have devastating environmental, economic and public health consequences for coastal states. FIU scientists, environmentalists and scholars are mobilizing to help officials face these major challenges and minimize the spill’s impact on rich, diverse habitats where many imperiled birds and animals live.

The university is planning a multi-pronged response to the oil spill, including a public education initiative. “As a public university, we have a responsibility to educate our constituents in surrounding counties about the possible implications of the oil spill in regard to our environment and public policy issues, such as our nation’s dependence on oil and fossil fuels,” said FIU Vice President for Engagement Divina Grossman.

As part of this educational initiative, FIU will hold a teach-in Saturday, May 15 at 1 p.m. in the Wolfe University Center Ballroom at Biscayne Bay Campus. The event, organized by the School of Environment and Society (SEAS), will bring together a panel of experts from across the university who will provide an overview of the causes of the spill and its potential impact on the habitats and wildlife of South Florida. After addressing these topics, the panel will answer questions from the audience. The event is free and open to the public but a RSVP is recommended. For more information, call 305-919-6000.

An array of faculty members with relevant expertise from FIU academic units and centers – the Southeast Environmental Research Center, SEAS, the Department of Earth and Environment, the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Biological Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the College of Business – will serve as media experts and speak about various issues related to the oil spill.

Research will be another vital component of FIU’s response. “We don’t know if the oil spill will reach this area or what the impact may be, but we want to be prepared,” said Michael Heithaus, executive director of SEAS. “Teams of our research scientists are heading to the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys to conduct sampling, which is being coordinated with other universities and agencies.”

The goal of the sampling is to document the current state of ecosystems and water quality in South Florida.  If the oil spill reaches this area, these pre-impact assessments will provide vital information that will help scientists to understand and minimize impacts to local ecosystems.

FIU is looking into obtaining a Rapid Response grant from the National Science Foundation to document the current state of mangrove ecosystems in southwest Florida and to continue sampling the potential impacts of the oil spill.

The university is also working in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Florida, other state university system institutions and private colleges as part of the Oil Spill Academic Task Force established by Frank Brogan, Chancellor of the State University System of Florida. The task force aims to provide assistance to local, state and federal agencies that are dealing with the oil spill and its aftermath. Heithaus is serving as FIU’s representative on the task force.

With the environment as one of FIU’s top strategic priorities, the university is committed to finding innovative and effective solutions to the complex environmental problems and playing a leadership role in this crisis. “The oil spill threatens the integrity of the South Florida environment as well as key industries such as fishing and beach tourism,” said Grossman. “It is our responsibility to educate the university community and the public and to engage in research to learn how to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again.”


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