Spring 2017 – Frequently Asked Questions

(From Spring 2017 Newsletter) GoMRI is pleased to have Brad Benggio, Scientific Support Coordinator with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, answer a few Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about his job, what scientific knowledge gaps remain in oil spill response, and how the science community can help in filling these gaps. We thank him for taking the time to answer a few questions about this important topic.

Question: Please tell us about your job as a Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC).

Answer: The NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) is a member of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration Emergency Response Division team providing support to federal on-scene coordinators (FOSC) for response to oil and chemical spills that may affect navigable waterways and marine, coastal, and ocean environments. Scientific Support Coordinators are one of the “special teams” identified by the National Contingency Plan to assist FOSCs during response by providing important special skill sets and expertise needed to accomplish the response in accordance with safety and environmental protection needs. SSCs lead a team of individuals with a broad range of expertise. This team may consist of both NOAA and non-NOAA experts depending on the incident’s specific needs. Everything from chemistry, hazard assessment, pollutant tracking and movement forecasts, resources-at-risk identification, prioritization of protection and development of response and cleanup strategies, field assessments and monitoring, sampling, addressing seafood safety issues, water level, and hydrography or photogrammetry support are some of the typical skills the SSC can provide for emergency response. Often there are new issues or problems out of the ordinary that SSCs will be asked to deal with as well. SSCs generally also act as the natural resource trustee for the U.S. Department of Commerce, providing coordination and a single point contact during response for issues related to the protection of natural resources assigned to NOAA for management and protection. The SSC typically sits on various National Response Team committees and is a member of Regional Response Teams and Areal Planning Committees to provide NOAA representation and assistance for contingency planning as well as policy and guidance development.

I have been the SSC for the Southeast and Caribbean regions since 1992. In that time, I’ve responded to several hundred incidents and helped developed local regional and national plans that help guide response.

Question: Can you share examples of how you translated science to inform decisions during spill response?

Answer: Every incident that an SSC responds to involves using the best available science, either at hand or created for that incident in the field to make better response decisions and focus on the most important priorities. We utilize a variety of resources to help with this including oil spill and oil fate models; chemical data bases; weather forecasting and observation resources; ocean currents and water level information; environmental Sensitivity Index Maps (ESIs) to identify what resources in the area are most important to protect; and direct field observations, sample analyses, and monitoring of response actions. NOAA’s years of providing scientific support for response (since 1976) have equipped us with lots of experience and expertise on a worldwide stage under a multitude of conditions that not many responders have had access to. Dr. Jaqueline Michel, one of our contract team members is known for her quote, “I’ve never been to the same spill twice.” While it’s true that each incident comes with its own specific issues, the long history and breadth of spill experience that resides in the SSC program is extremely valuable when addressing a new incident.

Question: What are the largest science-related knowledge gaps related to oil spill response?

Answer: The largest knowledge gaps that I’ve dealt with as an SSC come from a few areas. 1) There is always imperfect knowledge that must be applied to response decisions. Experience and history, scientific studies, and longer-term restoration and recovery projects have taught us many things to help guide us in the decision process, but there is always uncertainty. Identifying where uncertainty exists and where it can be reduced is a priority when talking about knowledge gaps. We must ask ourselves in this quest: what do we know, what is unknowable, and what else can we determine or where are the areas we can improve knowledge and reduce knowledge gaps? 2) Another important area where we need to improve is with human factors. We need to do a better job communicating to the public and other stakeholders the science we use to make response decisions. We need to listen carefully to their concerns and be prepared to help them understand our decisions or perhaps modify them based on their valid concerns. We want to do the best we can do for the resources affected, and we want to do that in a way that inspires trust and confidence from those that depend on us to return the environment to its pre-incident condition.

Question: How can academic researchers contribute to the science-based aspects of oil spill response?

Answer: Academic researchers can make a huge difference by contributing to the science-based aspects of spill response. We all started out in this career path because of an interest and love of science. SSCs no doubt respect the value of useful science and want more of it to help reduce the uncertainty that exists. I have had the honor of working directly with several important researchers and their projects since the GoMRI research initiatives were established, and I can definitely say they are making substantial headway to answer some important questions that will improve response. Most notably, my experience has brought me into an advisory capacity with the CARTHE consortium and with NOVA Southeastern University to help oversee and advise the important oil spill research they are conducting. I’ve also worked with an industry partner, Clean Caribbean Americus (now Owwwil Spill Response Ltd) to advance our knowledge of dispersed oil effects and long-term habitat recovery in tropical environments of Panama. It’s extremely important to bring together the different perspectives from federal, state, academia, industry, and the public or other stakeholders in order to get the complete and correct picture, which will lead to better answers and better response.

[Back to the Spring 2017 Newsletter]