On September 22–23, 2014, the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies held a workshop in New Orleans, Louisiana, to examine opportunities to improve the health, well-being, and resilience of communities in the Gulf of Mexico region. Approximately 50 individuals with diverse expertise and experience participated in discussions about perceived needs, challenges, and opportunities that are aligned with the Program’s mission and goals. Box 1-1 provides information about the Gulf Research Program, its mission and goals, and the series of opportunity analysis workshops held in 2014.
Six members of the Gulf Research Program’s Advisory Group planned the workshop agenda, selected presentations, and facilitated discussion during the meeting to accomplish the following:
- Explore needs, challenges, and potential opportunities to improve the health and resilience of Gulf communities.
- Identify potential opportunities to improve how Gulf communities anticipate, prepare for, and recover from disasters and environmental change.
Origins: In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire in the Gulf of Mexico caused the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, resulting in significant impacts on the region’s environment and residents. Plea agreements with the companies held responsible led the Department of Justice to ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to use a portion of the funds to form and administer a 30-year program to enhance oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. continental shelf areas where offshore oil and gas exploration and production occur.
The NAS will receive $500 million between 2013 and 2018 for the Gulf Research Program, which will be placed in an endowment and expended within 30 years. The Gulf Research Program is expected to use these funds to support activities in three broad categories: research and development, education and training, and environmental monitoring.
Strategic Vision: On September 15, 2014, the Gulf Research Program released its strategic vision document, which provides a framework to guide conversations, over the Program’s 30 year duration, about Program priorities and the development of an expanding portfolio of activities. The strategic vision document is the result of year-long deliberations by the Program’s Advisory Group, composed of 25 NAS-appointed volunteers with extensive expertise and familiarity with the Gulf region. Key elements of the Program’s strategic vision are summarized below:
Mission: Over its 30-year duration, the Gulf Research Program will work to enhance oil system safety and the protection of human health and the environment in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf areas by seeking to improve understanding of the region’s interconnecting human, environmental, and energy systems and fostering application of these insights to benefit Gulf communities, ecosystems, and the Nation.
- Foster innovative improvements to safety technologies, safety culture, and environmental protection systems associated with offshore oil and gas development.
- Improve understanding of the connections between human health and the environment to support the development of healthy and resilient Gulf communities.
- Advance understanding of the Gulf of Mexico region as a dynamic system with complex, interconnecting human and environmental systems, functions, and processes to inform the protection and restoration of ecosystem services.
Opportunity Analysis Workshops: From June through September 2014, the Program held three opportunity analysis workshops to elicit input from participants on ways to advance specific aspects of the Program’s strategic vision. The first workshop examined education and training to meet middle-skilled workforce needs in the Gulf region; the second explored environmental monitoring to support ecosystem restoration and to advance understanding of deep sea ecosystems; and the third, which is summarized in this report, investigated opportunities to improve the health and resilience of communities in the Gulf region.
- Identify potential opportunities to improve detection, assessment, management, and communication about environmental health risks.
- Explore how the Gulf Research Program can encourage innovation and collaboration and ensure that its activities engage and benefit communities.
Discussion at the workshop focused on topics relevant to the Gulf Research Program’s goal: To improve understanding of the connections between human health and the environment to support the development of healthy and resilient Gulf communities.
To provide a starting point for discussion, workshop participants were provided with the following text from the Gulf Research Program’s strategic vision, which included working definitions of key concepts (Gulf Research Program, 2014).
Health is more than a lack of illness. Human health, for the Program’s purposes, is defined as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The environments in which people live, work, and play are connected to health and well-being in a variety of ways, as exemplified by a wealth of ecosystem services1 in the Gulf region. Coastal wetlands, for example, regulate water quality, reduce the severity of storm impacts, and provide food and recreational opportunities. Other ecosystem services provide highly valued resources such as fish, oil, and natural gas that are extracted by major employers in the region and provide an economic base critical to community and individual well-being. These are just some of the many connections between human communities and their surrounding environments that influence health.
The impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on communities and ecosystems in the Gulf region illustrated the need to better understand these connections. Closure of fishing grounds, for example, threatened the livelihoods of individuals and caused disruptions in entire communities associated with the seafood industry (particularly those also involved in subsistence fishing). More broadly, uncertainty about exposure to and the health and environmental impacts of spill-related contaminants continues to drive public concern about the long-term effects of the spill. Mental and behavioral health effects are of particular concern, with lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill and other disasters suggesting the potential for long-lasting impacts on community recovery.
Over the next 30 years, natural and man-made disasters, climate change impacts, and other environmental stressors will present similar, complex challenges to the physical, mental, and social well-being of communities in the Gulf and other continental shelf areas. Understanding the interrelationships among health, ecological, and economic impacts of disasters and other environmental stressors will be crucial to addressing these challenges.
Resilience is a concept used by a variety of disciplines—from engineering to sociology—to describe the capacity of a system to absorb and recover from a disturbance. In the Gulf and other coastal regions, resilience is heavily influenced by interactions between human communities and their natural environment, yet these linkages are often not well understood. Understanding of factors that influence the vulnerability, recovery, and resilience of ecosystems and communities will require research across disciplines, including the physical, biological, social, and health sciences. Integrative research to examine these factors—including feedbacks between human systems (health, social, and economic dimensions, among others) and ecosystems—will help communities to better anticipate, respond to, and recover from disasters and other environmental stressors.
The Gulf Research Program’s focus on linkages between the environment and human health will include efforts to improve capacity to detect, assess, and communicate about environmental health risks in ways that support the development of healthy and resilient communities. National, state, and local efforts to improve community resilience have focused on preparedness for, response to, and recovery from all hazards. The Program will seek to provide information that can guide decisions by the public and policy makers and to advance scientific understanding. Additionally, the Program will work to support the development of health, scientific, community, and policy leaders that can address complex issues at the intersection between human and ecosystem health.
This workshop summary has been prepared to inform the discussions of the Gulf Research Program’s
1 Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, including provisioning services such as the supply of food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services such as nutrient cycling that maintain the conditions for life on Earth (GRP, 2014).
Advisory Board about the Program’s priorities for 2015–2020 and the development of an expanding portfolio of activities. The summary should not be seen as reflecting a consensus of workshop participants. Rather, it captures the comments made by presenters and the points made by participants in the open discussion sessions. To provide a high level summary of the discussion, points highlighted by the rapporteurs can be found the beginning of each chapter.
Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the Gulf Research Program and context for the workshop discussion. Chapter 2 provides an overview of many of the concepts and issues discussed at the meeting. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 highlight the ways in which health, social, economic, and environmental factors affect the resilience of communities, and they identify some of the perceived needs, existing approaches, and opportunities for improving the health and resilience of communities in the Gulf region. Chapter 6 explores needs and opportunities for improving capacities to detect, assess, manage, and communicate about environmental health risks. Chapter 7 summarizes discussions about opportunities that take best advantage of the Program’s 30-year duration. Chapter 8 provides a summary of opportunities to create lasting benefit. This workshop is a first step by the Gulf Research Program to explore the many needs, challenges, and opportunities to improve community resilience and health in the Gulf region. All facets of this very complicated topic could not be covered in a single workshop and many relevant and worthy topics were not explored in depth or addressed at the workshop.
On both days of the workshop, participants broke into four groups to examine specific questions posed by the workshop organizers. Summaries of the breakout groups’ suggestions can be found at the end of chapters on related topics. They should not be seen as the consensus recommendations of the workshop participants; nor are they necessarily actions that the Gulf Research Program should undertake. Rather, they represent a suite of possible future activities with which the Program could be involved.
The material presented during the workshop has been somewhat reorganized to combine discussions of related issues. The workshop agenda, statement of task, speaker biographies, and workshop attendees can be found in Appendices A, B, C, and D, respectively. Appendix E includes an overview of related funding programs.