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Top Engineers to Investigate Cause of Oil Spill

Investigations into the gulf oil disaster are multiplying. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council announced yesterday that they are assembling an expert committee of academic and industry engineers to take a technical look into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill.

The report was requested by the Department of the Interior to feed into the joint investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service (MMS); it will also be used by the presidential oil spill commission. The committee will be chaired by marine engineer Donald Winter, a former naval secretary and Northrop Grumman executive who is now at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

So far, a total of nine oil spill investigations have been launched by the president, BP, Congress, and various federal agencies; according to NAE, this one will look into practices and technologies, including the ill-fated "blowout preventer," that might have lead to the explosion, with an eye toward preventing future blowouts. Winter and a few other members plan to attend the joint investigation's next hearing, from 19 to 23 July, in Kenner, Louisiana—a hearing in May included witnesses from MMS, BP, and Transocean, among others. The committee expects to turn in a first report before 31 October, and a final report before 1 June of next year.

The committee is still gathering members from the fields of geoengineering, systems engineering, naval engineering, and petroleum engineering. Those appointed so far are:

  • Chryssostomos Chryssostomidis, Doherty Professor of Ocean Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Chryssostomidis established an MIT lab for developing technology and systems for autonomous underwater vehicles.
  • David E. Daniel, president of the University of Texas, Dallas, and an NAE member. Daniel is a geoengineer with expertise in drilling fluids.
  • Rear Admiral Thomas J. Eccles, chief engineer and deputy commander for naval systems engineering of the the U.S. Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command. Eccles has managed Navy programs in deep-ocean engineering and submarine technology.
  • Roger L. McCarthy, private engineering consultant and NAE member. McCarthy previously investigated oil disasters such as Exxon Valdez, Amoco Cadiz, and the explosion of the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea.
  • Najmedin Meshkati, professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. Meshkati studies risk reduction in the nuclear power, aviation, and petrochemical industries.
  • M. Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, Burt and Deedee McMurtry Professor and chair of the department of management science and engineering at Stanford University, and an NAE member. Paté-Cornell studies human and organizational factors in failure.
  • Jocelyn E. Scott, chief engineer and vice president at DuPont. Scott has worked in research and development and operations at Dupont.
  • Mark D. Zoback, Benjamin M. Page Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University. Zoback studies stresses in rock and the mechanics of faults and georeservoirs.

For more on the gulf oil spill, see our full coverage.