Wise in the Ways of Water

In the field with Dan Stinnett

Dan Stinnett

As the repercussions of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, also known as the BP Oil Disaster, continue to unfold, the nation and the world were reminded of past manmade calamities, including the infamous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Dan Stinnett, a biology instructor who came to DCTC after 30 years as a field biologist and field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, witnessed the horrific consequences of the Exxon Valdez disaster firsthand.

“At the time, I was a field biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service at an office in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Stinnett said. “I found myself in Kodiak, Alaska, in June of 1989, assigned to the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge with the job to monitor coastal cleanup activities on the Alaska Peninsula.”

Crew cleaning beach on Puale Bay, Alaska, after Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Stinnett spent a lot of time in Puale Bay overseeing 25-person crews equipped with only their hands and shovels to remove invasive tarballs and mousse patties—the latter a foamy mass of oil, seawater and air—from beachfronts and lagoons. He pointed out a few key differences between the Alaska spill and the Gulf Coast spill.

“In the Exxon Valdez incident, we knew how much oil spilled out of that tanker,” he said. “It floated on the surface and it was a very, very cold time of the year.”

Six of the All-Time Worst Oil Spills

  1. Arabian Gulf/Kuwait Oil Spill | 1991
    • 380-520 million gallons
    • Iraqi troops deliberately emptied several tankers into gulf
    • That’s enough oil to cover Rhode Island in a foot-deep slick
  2. Lakeview Gusher Number One | 1910
    • 378 million gallons
    • Out-of-control pressurized well in Kern County, Calif.
  3. Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill | 2010
    • 185 million gallons
    • Oil platform explodes in Gulf of Mexico
  4. Ixtoc 1 Oil Spill | 1979
    • 140 million gallons
    • Oil platform explodes in Bay of Campeche
  5. Atlantic Empress Oil Spill | 1979
    • 90 million gallons
    • Greek tanker collides with another ship off Trinidad and Tobago
  6. Kolva River Oil Spill | 1994
    • 84 million gallons
    • Pipeline ruptures in Russian Arctic

He explained how the sheen of oil engulfed rafts of pelagic, or seagoing, birds, coating their feathers and causing death from hypothermia. Experts concluded that 11 million gallons of oil smeared 1,300 miles of coastline and cloaked 11,000 square miles of ocean, killing as many as 250,000 seabirds, nearly 3,000 sea otters, 300 or so harbor seals, roughly 250 bald eagles and more than 20 killer whales.

By comparison, the Deepwater Horizon Spill took place nearly a mile underwater in much warmer waters—and scientists are not only at odds regarding the volume of oil released into the environment (some say as much as 185 million gallons, making it the largest accidental marine spill in history), but they are also uncertain about what’s really happening to it.

Deepwater Horizon oil slick photographed by NASA Terra satellite | May 24, 2010

“I don’t think we know for sure where all that oil is,” said Stinnett, who pointed to recent reports indicating a significant layer of oily sediment accumulating on the seafloor, noting that deep currents in the Gulf of Mexico could conceivably carry streams of spilled oil as far away as the Atlantic Ocean.

“Some people say dispersants and microbes have eliminated the oil,” he added. “Others are saying the oil has collected underwater in thick, jelly-like plumes. We’ll just have to wait for research results to know the answer.”

Wetland Loss & Degradation

According to the EPA, in the 1600s more than 220 million acres of wetland existed over territory that now houses the lower 48 states. That acreage has been reduced by well over half. Human activity is a major player in the loss, and the causes are multifarious, from dredging to logging to mining to pollution. Minnesota, with 9.3 million acres, ranks fourth behind Alaska, Florida and Louisiana as states with the most remaining wetlands. Urban and rural development along with global climate change are leading threats to wetland health.

Stinnett teaches the importance of protecting clean water resources to students in his environmental science classes. As a volunteer researcher for the Wetland Health Evaluation Program, or WHEP, he gathers data used by city and county planners as well the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to study wetland conditions in Dakota County.

Stinnett teaching students about wetlands in his Environmental Science class

“My students learn how wetland areas are like Mother Nature’s kidneys,” he said, “due to the way wetlands cleanse our freshwater and drinking water supplies.” He also explains how wetlands work as sponges, storing water and replenishing aquifers while helping to avert flooding.

“I am deeply committed to showing my students how important they are to the future of our world,” he said. “Each of us can play an active role in improving our environment. We need to be knowledgeable about our natural resources so that we can make good decisions.”

For more information about environmental science education at DCTC, including wetland preservation, please contact:

Dan Stinnett and student examining wetland water sample