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Summer 2010 Vol. 10 Number 2



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Photo by Donna Coveney, Massachusetts Institute of Technology News Office FROM THE PRESIDENT

National Academy of Engineering


Answering the Call

Top kill. Blowout preventer. Chemical dispersants. Who could have imagined how these unfamiliar terms would dominate the news and everyday conversations in the summer of 2010? But beginning with the tragic explosion that took 11 lives on BPís Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in April, followed by the millions of barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico in the months since, we now share a national crisis of confidence about an industry we all rely upon for our energy-intensive economy and lifestyle.

Deepwater Horizon has raised questions about drilling for oil a mile or more deep in the ocean, the capabilities and independence of government regulators to ensure the safety of deep water operations, and the price we are willing to pay in losses to local economies and regional ecosystems when something goes terribly wrong.

The Academies and National Research Council have always stood ready to examine complex problems on the federal governmentís behalf, problems that lie at the intersection of science, engineering, medicine, and policy. In this crisis, the call came to us within two weeks, asking the National Academy of Engineering and Research Council to conduct an independent technical analysis of the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, with the goal of preventing similar accidents in the future. An expert committee, led by NAE member and former Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter, is already gathering evidence to address this task. Our study will also help inform investigations by the Coast Guard, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, and a presidentially appointed commission.

In June, the Institute of Medicine was asked to focus its expertise on the spill's possible impacts on the health of workers, local residents, and clean-up volunteers. At a public workshop in New Orleans, IOM worked on the design of a system for monitoring the oil spillís short- and long-term health effects, with special attention to surveillance of high-risk and medically underserved populations.

As I write this letter, the Deepwater Horizon well appears to have finally been capped. But what next? What do we know about the toxic effects of the chemical stew Gulf residents have been exposed to for months? How will we begin to address losses to wetlands, wildlife, and fisheries? What about repairing damage to the Gulf economy, still suffering just a few years after Hurricane Katrina? And how do we prevent another disaster like Deepwater Horizon? These are all complex questions that will require the best data and careful consideration by independent experts. We are ready to offer our help and experience in addressing the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon.


    CHARLES M. VEST
    President
    National Academy of Engineering



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