Enlisted to help in Gulf

New England companies are working on cleanup, studying spill’s effects

The site of the Deepwater Horizon spill is surrounded by oil. Companies from New England are helping with the cleanup. The site of the Deepwater Horizon spill is surrounded by oil. Companies from New England are helping with the cleanup. (Jae C. Hong/ Associated Press)
By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

A handful of New England companies have set up operations in the Gulf of Mexico, helping to deal with the massive oil spill there — guiding seaworthy data-collecting robots, measuring currents, and analyzing oil and water samples.

Now over a month old, the spill is considered the worst in US history. One of the first companies on the scene was Applied Science Associates of Rhode Island, which had a crew in the Gulf region within days of an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which triggered the spill. Under a contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Applied Science is compiling data for a “spill impact model,’’ said Nicole Mulanaphy, an environmental chemical engineer with the company. “Where we come into play is trying to identify how much damage has been done to the environment,’’ she said. “Right now, we’re in the data collecting phase.’’

Several Applied Science employees are currently out on boats taking water samples, measuring currents, and gathering other information, Mulanaphy said.

Also working on the spill are: Clean Harbors Inc. of Norwell, which has been contracted by government agencies and private organizations to help contain and remove oil, and train area residents to help with cleanup efforts; iRobot Corp. of Bedford, which has researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Washington using its Seaglider Unmanned Underwater Vehicle to gather data about oil from the spill; Smith Marine, a company in Marblehead that provides support for bridge inspections and shoreline maintenance; and Trident Environmental Group, an environmental company in Marlborough that often works in emergency situations like oil and chemical spills.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling for oil giant BP, which has been unsuccessful in its attempts to plug the leak that is pumping an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil into the ocean a day. BP is now focused on drilling relief wells to redirect the oil. Those new wells could take several months to complete.

As that work progresses, environmental services companies are working to map the spill, calculate the damage it is causing, and determine the best way to clean it up. Clean Harbors, which also worked in the area after Hurricane Katrina, said in a statement on its website that it has a “large number’’ of employees and subcontractors working on the oil spill. Company representatives did not return calls for comment, but the company has indicated that the spill prom ises to be profitable. In a statement last month, Clean Harbors said its work on the spill is expected to boost its revenues for the second quarter by 15 to 20 percent.

Joe Dyer, president of iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots Division, said the Seaglider was deployed about two weeks ago to collect data about the oil plumes that some researchers believe are collecting beneath the ocean’s surface. That belief has been challenged because oil is lighter than water and would typically rise to skim along the ocean’s top.

“The truth will be in the data, and folks are down there sorting out truth from fiction, and the Seaglider is one of the tools being used,’’ Dyer said.

Once programmed, the battery-operated Seaglider can sink to depths of about 3,280 feet and collect data for as long as 10 months, according to Dyer.

“Seaglider is a bit like an underwater pickup truck: It will collect whatever data,’’ Dyer said, adding that the robot delivers the data via satellite when it surfaces. “It is cool. Hopefully it will help.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at