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What did we learn from the BP oil spill?

What did we learn from the BP oil spill?

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Next time, we'd better be better prepared.

MIT faculty last month held a symposium on the BP oil spill, the largest ever, and said that preparation for the next spill is key -- both for reducing the chances of it happening and fighting it more effectively if one does occur, according to MIT.

Here are some of the lessons that MIT faculty members say we should learn, either because they studied the spill and/or advised the government or BP on how to deal with it:

- Oil booms were not that useful for skimming oil from the surface of the open ocean, according to Department of Mechanical Engineering Emeritus Professor Jerome Milgram. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he invented a boom, Milgram said the amount of oil collected by them may have been less than 1.5 percent of what was spilled. The 850 miles of booms and 5500 cleanup vessels did provide jobs for local residents though.

- The spill is not going to be as toxic as people fear. Milgram worked on capping what is now the world's second largest oil spill, the Ixtoc oil spill off the coast of Mexico in 1979, and said there are few traces of it now.

- Preparation for another spill is critical, according to mechanical engineering Professor Alexander Slocum. The array of tools that BP developed to try to fight the spill should have been available from day one.

- Risk management is also critical, said aeronautics and astronautics professor Nancy Leveson. From MIT:

...managers are often focused on the wrong indicators, confusing occupational safety with system safety...They look at the number of days employees are out of work because of accidents as a measure of safety, while ignoring potential warning signs of a larger problem. “They’re managing the wrong feedback,” Leveson says. “They focus on operator error or technical failures, and ignore systemic and management factors.”

Deep water oil drilling isn't going away, even though the federal government has temporarily banned the practice, so there probably will be a next time.

Last week, the New York Times reported that a Spanish company will begin drilling for new oil wells next year in waters belonging to Cuba -- only 50 miles from the Florida Keys.

And our recovery from the BP spill is far from complete. ProPublica complains this week that representatives from BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are talking to Louisiana school children about the spill and how oil dispersants broke it down -- without mentioning the thick layers of oily sediment scientists found on the Gulf floor or the high levels of carcinogenic chemicals in waters off the Louisiana coast.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure