Christopher Reddy Talks About the Long-Term Effects of Oil Spills

Special Topic of Oil Spills Interview, November 2010

Christopher M. ReddyIn our Special Topics analysis of oil spills research over the past decade, the work of Dr. Christopher Reddy ranks at #6 by total papers and #7 by total citations, based on 23 papers cited a total of 372 times. Two of these papers rank among the 20 most-cited over the past decade and over the past two years.

Reddy's record in Essential Science IndicatorsSM from Thomson Reuters includes 107 papers, the majority of which are classified under Environment & Ecology, cited a total of 1,760 times between January 1, 2000 and June 30, 2010. He is a Senior Scientist in the Department of Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry and Director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Reddy's work is largely field-based, and has dealt with multiple spills worldwide, including the North Cape, Florida, Bouchard 65, Bouchard 120, and Deepwater Horizon spills, as well as natural oil seeps off the coast of Santa Barbara, and, most recently, the COSCO Busan spill. Reddy has been a prominent scientific figure in the Deepwater Horizon spill, and, in fact, his lab had the first paper published on the spill, in Science.

BELOW, Correspondent Gary Taubes talks with him about the evolution of his career.

SW: How did you get your start working on pollutants and oil spills?

When I graduated from college I actually got a job working for a local company that made chemical standards to calibrate instruments for pollutants. If you want to analyze for oil or other pollutants you need to calibrate what, back then, in most cases, was your gas chromatograph. Often what you did was buy a small solution from a company and use that as a calibration solution, and one of the companies that made these solutions was the one I was working for.

After I left that job, I was hired by another company to analyze drinking water for pollutants, so I was kind of doing the inverse. The first company I worked for sold chemicals to calibrate instruments to do pollutant analysis and the second company analyzed pollutants with the standards that in some cases I had prepared at the first company.

That experience of analyzing drinking water was by far paramount to any success I ever had in my career. Because they were often being used in legal proceedings, these samples had to be analyzed under a strict protocol. The company had many, many instruments and I had a lot of opportunities to learn how to fix instruments, to understand the difference between good data and bad data. I developed a good nose for high-quality data. It prepared me to this day, because I can appreciate quality control, all because of that working experience.

After working for that second company, I went back to school for my Ph.D. and studied with Jim Quinn, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. As it happens, he had trained many of the top oil-spill pollution scientists.

Boats in the background. Photo by Chris Reddy.
"In about a 25-year period, nature, for whatever reason, did not change the chemical composition of the oil buried in these salt marshes."

Boats in the background. Photo by Chris Reddy.

As for oil spills, about a year before I finished my doctorate, there was a good-sized oil spill off the coast of Rhode Island. It happened on a Friday in January 1996. On that day, my advisor, again a very good oil spill scientist, happened to be going away on a ski trip and he said to me, "a lot of good scientists are going to be working on this, don't you get involved. Work on your thesis." I remember that was about 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon and by 4:01 I was working against my advisor's advice. That was my first oil spill.

I finished my Ph.D., did a postdoc at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and, in March 2000, joined the scientific team there.

SW: One of your two most-cited papers is about an oil spill within driving distance of Woods Hole (Reddy CM, et al., " The West Falmouth oil spill after thirty years: The persistence of petroleum hydrocarbons in marsh sediments," Environ. Sci. Technol. 36: 4754-60, 2002). How did this come about and what were you hoping to learn?

I actually came to Woods Hole to work on other aspects of pollution and I really thought I was done with oil spills. But there was an undergraduate from the University of Hawaii, Aubrey Hounshel, who wrote to me saying that he wanted to work on an oil spill for the summer. I wrote back to him flippantly, "You want me to call Exxon and ask them to have a spill?"

But then I was talking to a colleague who suggested going back to this famous West Falmouth spill from 1969, which happened to be one month after I was born. So this student from Hawaii came here and found that oil from the spill still remained, and the next thing you know we started asking many questions about the oil. Why is it still there? Is it still toxic? Is it getting biodegraded? And those questions led to many of my most-cited papers.

SW: Was the West Falmouth spill famous worldwide or just to the researchers at WHOI?

Well, to me, this was the spill of all spills. In a nutshell, what happened was a barge ran aground on a cloudy night in September 1969 and spilled 189,000 gallons of diesel fuel. And what's amazing is that this happened in the back yard of some of the finest marine scientists in the world, which is where I work now. So the best guy for studying petroleum was there—a guy named Max Blumer—and the best guy for studying the effect this oil would have on organisms living at the bottom of the ocean was there—Howard Sanders—and then there was probably one of the best salt marsh ecologists—John Teal.

What these scientists did was lay down a series of outstanding manuscripts on how to document how oil changes in the environment and, for all practical purposes, all the approaches that people have used recently to study the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico really started in 1969 with these efforts at the West Falmouth spill.

SW: After studying the spill more than 30 years later, what did you find?

This is what we reported in that first paper in 2002 in Environmental Science and Technology—that oil still existed and, second, that using some pretty advanced technology we were able to show surprisingly little of that oil had changed since probably 1975. In about a 25-year period, nature, for whatever reason, did not change the chemical composition of the oil buried in these salt marshes.

SW: Could you explain why the oil didn't change composition?

Well, one thing is that the sediments were anaerobic, and anaerobes work at least 10 times slower than other microbes. But the real reason I think the microbes stopped eating the oil is because they had a better offer. You have to realize that oil spans in its biodegradability from very easy to do to very difficult to do. The compounds that compose oil are not all the same. What I believe happened was that the microbes decided they'd rather eat the remaining plant debris from the marsh grasses, etc., than any of the compounds in the oil.

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