National honor for Auburn man’s role in gulf oil-disaster tech support

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The Gulf of Mexico is a long way from home for Department of Fish and Game scientist and Auburn resident Judd Muskat. But as emergency personnel converged on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill earlier this year, Muskat was soon making his home away from home at the cleanup command base in Houma, La. Muskat was the first state employee California sent to the spill to assist the massive mobilization of science, manpower and money to contain the spreading oil slick. In all he would work 55 days – many of them 12- to 16-hour shifts. The 58-year-old Auburnite’s key role was his expertise in developing and implementing a portable mapping camera and thermal imager integrated with a global positioning system mounted on a light aircraft. Muskat, a 17-year Auburn resident, provided the ground support while Jan Svejkovsky of Ocean Imaging Corp. in Solana Beach – a private partner in developing the system for use in the U.S. – flew air operations for imaging out of a Mobile, Ala. flight base. “It was long and grueling but satisfying,” Muskat said. “And we learned a lot to help us with future spills in California.” Muskat – along with Svejkovsky and two federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement employees – were on the receiving end Thursday of a national Cooperative Conservation Award for developing the aerial oil-mapping system. The award is presented annually by the U.S. Department of the Interior to recognize efforts to promote conservation on public lands and innovative approaches. “This mapping technology improves spill response efficiency dramatically,” Department of Fish and Game Director John McCamman said. With the system, photo images showing where oil is located and how concentrated it is can be gathered and then distributed after landing back at a base. Muskat said that satellite-only imagery of the spill area that the public saw showed a widespread surface slick that rapidly evaporated but the imaging camera developed in California was able to show where thick concentrations were located and map them with GPS. That allowed oil spill responders to deploy chemicals and other controls to the areas with the highest concentrations of oils before they had time to spread. “It was bad, no doubt about it, but every day, people would see an outline of the slick and in reality it was a very thin sheet,” Muskat said. “There’s an old adage that 90 percent of the oil is in 10 percent of the area. With our imaging system we could efficiently find that.” With nearly two months of experience on a major oil spill, the California team is now looking at improving its system by zeroing in on emulsion areas – where water is mixed with oil – to provide an even clearer picture of how much oil is where. A product of the state university system, Muskat spent his early years in New Jersey and New York City. Satellite imagery has been used on oil spills for more than 30 years and Muskat has been working on California spill protection projects since he was hired in 1993 to move the science forward. The award is the most prestigious he’s received, said Muskat – whose wife Barbara is perhaps best known in Auburn for developing a mural program. When he’s not working out of the Fish and Game Department, Muskat turns toward the outdoors and recreational opportunities in the region – including hiking the American River confluence area and snowshoeing in the Sierra. “I’m truly appreciate of getting award,” Muskat said. “It’s good to be recognized and it’s good to help protect the environment.” -------------------------------------------- By the numbers: Big rig, big problems Here are some numbers from the Gulf of Mexico spill earlier this year: 20 billion – Dollars in compensation fund established by BP 52 – Percent BP stock fell in the 50 days after the April 20 rig blowout 2,500 – The square mileage the slick covered at its peak 11 – Employees killed in the rig explosion 35,000 to 60,000 – Estimates on the number of barrels of oil per day that flowed through the damaged pipe Source: Wikipedia