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On Call

Client: UNH Magazine, Fall 2010

On Call

As the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico unfolded, UNH’s Coastal Response Research Center —and its director, Nancy Kinner ’80G, ’83G — became the go-to source for oil spill expertise

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, Nancy Kinner ’80G, ’83G was in Anchorage, Alaska, doing one of the things she does best—talking about oil and, ironically, what to do with it when it spills. Within hours, her phone started ringing. Reporters everywhere were scrambling after the story. They needed experts to interview, and they needed them fast. CNN International got to Kinner first, hoping to interview her on the evening news. But the professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of UNH’s Coastal Response Research Center was busy trying to wrap up her final workshop session. Members of her staff waved frantically from the back of the hotel conference room, trying to get her attention. No luck. They tried exaggerated wrist-tapping. More animated gesturing. Finally, with seconds to spare, Kinner dashed next door, where, from a computer screen in Alaska she spoke to newscasters in London about the mechanics of blowouts and potential environmental impacts on the Gulf Coast. No one knew, at that point, just how bad things were going to get. By the time she returned to UNH the next day, an environmental crisis of historic proportions was unfolding. And Kinner was in perpetual demand.

In the months following the spill, the professor with a reputation on campus as “tough but caring” talked to newspaper reporters and TV personalities. She spoke from her office stacked high with papers, and she was transported to studios where she sat face to face with news anchors. She testified three times before Congress, and, at the request of the White House, Kinner and her staff mobilized emergency meetings of oil spill responders to address controversial cleanup issues. But as the drama in the Gulf continued, Kinner didn’t perceive herself as a media star or an oil spill expert—she saw herself as a teacher. And she hoped everyone was paying attention. The nation, her extended classroom, was in the midst of the ultimate “teachable moment.” Would the American people get the message? Would she be able to help them learn the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon?

Kinner was uniquely suited to step into the role of “internationally recognized oil spill professor,” according to Amy Merten, NOAA co-director of the center. “She has a lot of credibility that other academics don’t necessarily have. Nancy understands how the incident command system works during a spill, how funding works, how oil companies work with the federal government and states in trying to solve a common problem. Nancy was the only academic out there who could be a sort of neutral spokesperson—and that’s because of her work with the Coastal Response Research Center.”

Established in 2004 as a partnership with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the center has become a hub of expertise for oil spill response and restoration research. While other university-based oil spill research centers exist, none has UNH’s national focus—or the connection to NOAA. “We needed a research arm that could help oil spill responders do their jobs better,” says Merten, explaining that other university centers are tied to oil-related activity in their own states. Only the center at UNH coordinates and distributes funding—nearly $5 million—to scientists around the nation.

“The center’s goal has been to identify major research gaps and try to help fill them,” says Merten, ticking off three of the biggies: dispersants, Arctic regions and impact on humans. One project, for example, looked at the use of dispersants to clean up salt marshes. Another looked at the recovery of oil in extreme cold-water environments. Still another tried to determine the impact of a spill on people’s quality of life: How, for example, do you measure the lost value to a community of an oil-contaminated beach? “Thanks to their work over the past few years, the center was able to bring good science and good people to the Deepwater Horizon spill,” says Merten.

At first, the center had to prove itself to skeptics, including a number of big oil-rich states that wondered why a little place like New Hampshire—without a drop of oil to be found seeping through its granite bedrock—should house a center for oil spill research. But that was precisely the point. “We don’t have an oar in the water, so to speak. We can be objective,” says Kinner. Support from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) made the new center a reality.

For the next six years, Kinner and the center built a reputation for promoting independent peer-reviewed research on issues of national concern—research that could be applied on the ground. The center also hosted conferences that brought together all sides of an issue. By the time oil began gushing into the Gulf in the spring of 2010, Kinner had become a sort of “go to” person in the oil spill community. Pundits and politicians, too, were turning to her, hoping for answers—or at least explanations.

One day in late May, Kinner’s phone rang at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was Beth Potier of UNH’s media relations office calling to say PBS wanted Kinner to appear live on the evening news—at 6 p.m. “I can do it,” she told Potier, “but only if you drive. I have to prepare for another interview on the way over.” By 5 p.m. Potier was at Gregg Hall and they were off to Manchester, where a satellite uplink would carry Kinner live to PBS viewers.

At 5:55 p.m., stuck at a traffic light, Potier answered her cell phone. It was the PBS producer: Where are you? Minutes later, as Kinner bolted through the studio’s front door, a staffer ran after her, clipping a microphone to her lapel on the way. There was no time to catch her breath, no time for hair or makeup, no time to find out what had already been covered in the opening minutes. She sat down, at exactly 6:04 p.m., and went live on national television.

Describing how some oil will evaporate and some will form tar balls the size of your thumbnail, Kinner explained dilution to her TV audience as if she were explaining it to a class of students—slowly, thoughtfully, and with an earnest intensity that made the urgency of the situation obvious. “Dr. Kinner has been a great resource for us,” says Jenny Marder, reporter-producer for “PBS NewsHour,” where Kinner has been a frequent guest. “She’s good at clearly explaining the technical side of the cleanup effort.”

As oil continued to pour into the Gulf at the rate of about 2 million gallons a day, the spill remained at the top of the national news and the media continued to call. Erika Mantz, director of UNH’s media relations office, was sometimes fielding 8-10 requests a day, and Kinner was talking nonstop. Along with “PBS NewsHour,” she talked on air to ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CBS, CNN, C-SPAN and the BBC. She talked to reporters from Time and Newsweek magazines, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and dozens of other publications. As the spill dragged on, some news outlets called back for second and third interviews.

“It’s all about education,” says Kinner, who provided a steady voice in the midst of the hype and online misinformation. Kinner reminded people to look at the science. And, she pointed out, over and over again, we don’t have all the answers yet. It’s too soon to tell. It wasn’t necessarily what people wanted to hear. But it was the truth. The important thing, Kinner seemed to be saying, is to learn something from this so we can do better next time. Because there will be a next time.

Like any good teacher, Kinner used analogies. When reporters wanted to know why it was taking so long to cap the well, Kinner explained it this way: “Imagine yourself up in a helicopter at night. You’re bouncing around in the wind and trying to place something on a 7-inch dinner plate one mile below.” She explained why it was so difficult to work a mile below the surface by describing the pressure: “It’s 2,200 pounds per square inch down there,” she said. “That’s like someone putting a ton of pressure on one square inch of your skin.”

While Kinner talked to the press, her staff at the center worked nearly round the clock in what they called the war room. Mike Curry ’09, Tyler Crowe ’08, ’10G and Heather Ballestero ’09G, along with a trio of undergraduates, focused on the center’s web site, which saw a sharp spike in traffic. Zach Magdol ’08 and Joe Cunningham ’03, ’08G, the center’s research engineers, handled countless requests for scientific support. “It was truly a team effort,” says Kinner.

When she wasn’t answering media calls, Kinner was sometimes fielding calls from federal officials. At graduation on May 22, she was on stage serving as chief faculty marshal when her cell phone buzzed. Juggling her mace in one hand and her phone in the other, she took a call from David Kennedy, head of NOAA’s National Ocean Service: Could she convene an emergency international meeting to address the use of dispersants in the Gulf cleanup efforts, starting in two days? Her answer, of course, was yes. Within 24 hours, Kathy Mandsager, the center’s program coordinator, had invited 50 key scientists. Two days later, in Baton Rouge, La., Kinner, her staff and dozens of experts were hard at work, tackling the most controversial issue of the Gulf oil spill—dispersants.

“It’s really a question of trade-offs,” says Kinner. “There are only a few ways to clean up oil when it spills.” And then she summarizes the options: If the conditions are right, you can burn it. Or you can collect it using booms and skimmers. But if it’s spilling at tremendous rates and the wind is blowing, these methods are ineffective. Dispersants work like laundry detergent in a washing machine. They attract the oil, and the turbulence helps them pull oil particles away from the surface, driving the oil down into the water and protecting the fragile shoreline and estuaries. But little is known about the long-term effects of dispersed oil. Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, dispersants had been used sparingly in U.S. waters—on only five occasions in 30 years. And while today’s dispersants are less toxic than earlier ones, the controversy rages on.

Among the Baton Rouge attendees were scientists who had publicly denounced dispersants and had ordered a drastic reduction in their use during the Gulf cleanup. The debate was all over the news. Kinner reminded people at the meeting that they were not there to discuss policy or politics. Their job was to examine the science and to discuss the pros and cons of different cleanup methods. By the end of the second day, the group had reached a consensus supporting the use of dispersants and released a carefully crafted statement to the press.

For days afterwards, Kinner was on the spot, fielding questions and explaining the decision. She is convinced it was the right choice. “When history writes the story of the Deepwater Horizon, dispersants are going to be viewed as saving the day,” says Kinner. “We kept the oil off shore—out of the oyster beds, out of the shrimp areas.”

It is a testament to the reputation of the center and Kinner’s facilitation skills that a group of overworked scientists and oil spill responders, all of them in crisis mode, gathered together for two long days and came out the other side with an agreement. At the end of the final day, Kinner heard a familiar request from somewhere in the crowd: Sing, Nancy, sing! Her signature tune, “Happy Trails,” is familiar to thousands of UNH alums who, for the past six years, have been serenaded by Kinner at the end of every graduation ceremony. Turns out the oil spill community has come to expect the same treatment. And so she sang, sending everyone off humming “’til we meet again.”

Washington called on Kinner’s expertise frequently in the months after the spill. Along with a second meeting on dispersants, she was also asked to testify three times before Congress. Each time she spent hours preparing, often retreating to the peace and quiet of her cabin on the Maine coast and working straight through the weekend. Then she put on her famous red hat and headed to Washington. Striding into the Capitol building one day, Kinner heard someone calling her name and turned to see Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) waving at her from across the rotunda. “She recognized my hat,” says Kinner.

Whenever she was testifying, Kinner’s staff gathered in Room 320 of Gregg Hall to watch their boss in action, computers and cell phones at the ready to provide additional data if needed. When she was finished, Kinner always took questions. “Once we got lambasted about why we don’t have the technology to deal with a spill of this proportion,” says Kinner. The country doesn’t have the technology, she explained, “because it hasn’t been a national priority.” She noted the country has been dealing with two wars and an economic downturn. And there hadn’t been a major spill in U.S. waters in 20 years. There have been many times, according to Kinner, when people predicted that the center would be obsolete—because we don’t have major oil spills in this country anymore. “Unfortunately,” she said in her testimony before Congress on June 9, “the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill has proved that assumption to be horribly wrong.”

Kinner took full advantage of each opportunity to speak to the country’s policymakers. As she talked about the need for expanded research and development, she held up the center at UNH as a model that could be replicated around the country. Even on the day Kinner was seated next to actor and fellow presenter Kevin Costner, she never lost her focus. The photographers started snapping, and, sure enough, she and Costner appeared together in an issue of the New York Times. But Kinner, single-minded as ever, barely noticed. “I never go to the movies,” she admits. “I didn’t really know who he was.” For Kinner, testifying before Congress was another critical teachable moment, another chance to help the country get things right.

In the midst of the hoopla, Kinner never lost sight of her students. “Once I heard her coming into class taking a call from Washington,” says Eric Doe ’11. “She told them she was about to teach and she’d have to call them back.” Students quickly realized that they had a teacher who was all over TV—someone their parents said they’d seen on the evening news. But that didn’t mean Kinner let them off the hook just because she was so busy. Her legendary environmental engineering class includes regular group project meetings—a total of 14 hours each week for Kinner. Even when she was in Alaska, she rose at 3 or 4 a.m. to participate in conference calls with students.

Although she’s barely had time to set foot in her lab since the Gulf explosion, Kinner remains a scientist at heart with a special passion for bacteria that do battle with spilled oil. She’s studied biodegradation in salt marshes, and now, the center-funded research underway across the hall from her office gives Kinner a chance to look at the biodegradation of oil in ice. Late on a summer afternoon, she checks in on graduate student Ballestero, who is squinting into a microscope to count Arctic microbes. Ballestero feeds her hungry microbes powdered cereal leaf extract, rich in the nutrients they need to thrive. Every other day, she filters, samples and counts the cultures. Soon she will set up a gas chromatograph that will help determine if the bacteria can destroy the oil molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the ones that are thought to cause cancer. This is the fundamental research that drives Kinner, the scientist. It is slow, painstaking work. But accurate science is the foundation of effective oil spill response and restoration. Which is why Kinner is so devoted to the center and to the goal of promoting sound research.

“We are still an oil-hungry society,” she says. As long as we use oil, we can expect more accidents, especially since the Earth’s remaining oil is often located in places that are increasingly difficult to reach. And we may as well be prepared. As for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Kinner acknowledges that there were plenty of poor decisions to go around. But finger-pointing, she insists, is not the solution. The goal, she says, should be to figure out what went wrong, figure out how to fix it, and then figure out how to prevent it from happening again. Kinner’s role following the Gulf oil spill—in the midst of a national dialogue that sometimes turned into a screaming match—was to remind people that, in the end, we have something to learn here. And we had better be paying attention.

“People always want to find a smoking gun,” she says. “But what about our own habits?” Ultimately, responsibility resides with each one of us. For her part, Kinner has just purchased a fuel-efficient used car. “It’s a way of doing my part,” she says. If you happen to pass her on the highway, she’ll be easy to spot, tooling along in a spiffy black Toyota Prius, probably headed to an interview or some sort of meeting—on the way to her next “teachable moment.” She will, of course, be wearing her red hat.

Also read “Award-Winner”, to learn more about the Environmental Response Management Application developed by UNH


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