Center for the Environment

Award-winning NPR reporter to speak on Gulf oil spill coverage

February 3, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Award-winning NPR correspondent Richard Harris will speak Feb. 3 at Purdue University as part of a Discovery Lecture focused on the role of journalists and scientists surrounding last year's massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Harris, who received a 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in November for his coverage of the environmental disaster, will give the presentation "How Big Was the BP Spill? Getting to the Truth" at 3:30 p.m. in Pfendler Hall's Deans Auditorium.

The event is free and open to the public. A reception will follow the talk in second-floor foyer of Pfendler Hall.

"Richard will recount how he got into the Gulf oil spill story, how his reporting unfolded and how the partnership between journalists and scientists ended up affecting the U.S. government's approach to what we now recognize as an environmental impact of historic proportions," said event co-organizer John Bickham, director of Discovery Park's Center for the Environment.

Sponsors of the Discovery Lecture Series event are Discovery Park, the Lilly Endowment, Purdue's Global Sustainability Initiative, Center for the Environment, Energy Center, College of Liberal Arts, and Purdue Marketing and Media.

More than 4 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf off the coast of Louisiana following the April 20 explosion at the Macondo well, killing 11 workers. Leaking an estimated 50,000-60,000 barrels per day, the BP oil spill is roughly 20 times more than the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. The BP well was sealed on Sept. 19.

Harris, an NPR reporter since 1986, and editor Alison Richards won the Kavli Science Journalism Award for a series of radio reports that challenged the initial estimates on the spill's size. The Kavli Science Journalism Awards are presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On May 12, Harris was the first to report that figures released by the U.S. government and BP underestimated the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Harris had contacted Purdue mechanical engineering professor Steven Wereley to see if the professor could use a research tool he had developed to analyze the initial 30-second video clip of oil gushing from the 21.5-inch pipe.

Wereley, an expert in a technique called particle image velocimetry (PIV) whose laboratory is in Discovery Park's Birck Nanotechnology Center, spent the afternoon of May 11 creating freeze-frame shots from the video and analyzing data to compute how fast oil was flowing from the pipe.

"To get this story, I found several scientists who were willing to drop what they were doing and take up the challenge I presented them," Harris said. "With the able help of my editor, we quickly put this information out to the public. Though we initially met with resistance, facts are stubborn things, and ultimately the analysis was proven correct."

The news coverage helped spur the creation of a federal panel that included Wereley to review the flow-rate estimates. By mid-June, the panel was estimating the flow at 35,000-60,000 barrels of oil a day, in line with what NPR had reported.

"Richard Harris' reporting on the Gulf oil spill was an important and ground-breaking development in an ongoing story," Janet Raloff of Science News said in his judging submission. "His coverage shows how science can shape public discourse on an important topic."

Added freelancer Kathy Sawyer, formerly with The Washington Post: "In digging behind the official estimates, Harris exposed the shortcomings of the BP and government approach to estimating the oil flow."

As an NPR correspondent, Harris has reported from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest and the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.

He has received numerous reporting honors, including the Sagan Award from the Council of Scientific Society Presidents and the American Medical Writers Association's Walter C. Alvarez Memorial Award. He shared a Peabody Award for reporting on the tobacco industry. A California native, Harris earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

A $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment helped Purdue and Discovery Park create the Discovery Lecture Series to bring prominent speakers to campus.

Writer:  Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133, pfiorini@purdue.edu

Sources:   John Bickham, 765-494-5146, bickham@purdue.edu

                    Richard Harris, rharris@npr.org

                    Steven Wereley, 765-494-5624, wereley@purdue.edu 

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