The Earth Institute Practicum on Environment and Sustainable Development Lecture

The Earth Institute Practicum on Environment and Sustainable Development Lecture

Oil Disaster in the Gulf: Perspectives


  • Andrew Juhl, Doherty Associate Research Scientist
  • Ajit Subramanian, Lamont Associate Research Professor, Division of Biology and   Paleo Environment, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory 
  • Martin Mendez, Postdoctoral Fellow, Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and Center for Conservation Genetics, American Museum of Natural History
  • Kathleen Callahan, Associate Director, Columbia Water Center, The Earth Institute

September 21, 2010
4:20 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. EDT
Columbia University Law School, Greene Hall, Room 102
The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is believed to be the most serious environmental disaster in the history of the United States. The Earth Institute Practicum on Environment and Sustainable Development will feature four speakers who will discuss recent findings from their research in the Gulf of Mexico and their perspectives on the current situation in terms of environmental impact and agency response.

Two of the panelists are biologists from the Earth Institute’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: Andrew Juhl, Doherty Associate Research Scientist, and Ajit Subramian, a Lamont associate research professor in the Division of Biology and Paleo Environment. Having recently returned from a six week fieldtrip in the Gulf of Mexico, Subramian and Juhl will offer their scientific understanding of the way oil will affect oxygen concentrations and food webs, while sharing their observations of the conditions in the gulf. Subramian studies phytoplankton as well as the use of monitoring systems like remote sensing and bio-optics to evaluate coastal water quality, and Juhl is an expert in plankton ecology. Together, they will offer their insights on the monitoring and data collection that needs to be done in order for scientists to be able to make assessments of the potential impacts on the Gulf’s ecological functioning.

Martin Mendez, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, will speak about the impact of the oil spill on the diverse ecosystems and mammalian life of the Gulf. He will discuss the impact of oil on the 27 cetacean species – including whales, dolphins and porpoises – that are uniquely adapted to the area and vulnerable to the effects of the oil spill.

Kathleen Callahan, director of the Columbia Water Center and an associate professor of policy in the School of International and Public Affairs, will examine the response of federal, state and local agencies to this disaster and the complex policy issues raised by the magnitude of the disaster.  She will address the Gulf oil spill through a policy expert’s eyes. Callahan, who spent 35 years as a senior administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency, will speak from her experience as the senior executive who led the Superfund and oil spill programs in EPA Region 2 and who led the EPA’s emergency response to the World Trade Center disaster. She will offer an overview of the National Contingency plan and National Response Plan and the way that federal agencies are meant to interact amongst themselves, as well as with state and local agencies.

Callahan will also discuss the natural resource damage claim process and its challenges when the scientific research on the effects of disasters also becomes central to determining responsibility for liability. What are the consequences of scientists publishing their findings in the midst of complex legal settlements? What are the difficulties involved in gathering scientific data in a disaster zone that is under multiple, often conflicting jurisdictions of federal, state and local agencies?  How can scientists turn their scientific observations of the disaster at hand into dollar amounts to be collected from the parties considered responsible for the damage?

In conclusion, the participants in the practicum will reflect on the possibility of ecological recovery for the area and the time and effort that it will take to restore the damaged wetlands.

For more information please contact the course instructor, Louise Rosen at