expert assists United Nations with Gulf War
expert assists United Nations with Gulf War
By D. Lyn
Hunter, Public Affairs
The Gulf War ended nearly 10 years ago, but the clean-up from that conflict continues today.
The environmental devastation that resulted caused billions of dollars of damage, which, according to the United Nations, must be paid by the Iraqi government. Thirteen countries have submitted environmental claims, totaling $48 billion, to the United Nations.
To help process these requests, the U.N.'s Security Council scanned the globe, seeking out the world's leading experts on environmental issues.
One of their first calls was to Berkeley's Director of Environment, Health & Safety, Susan Spencer.
"It was an invitation that came up very unexpectedly," said Spencer. "The work required me to spend a year in Geneva, but my boss, Horace Mitchell, encouraged me to take advantage of this unique opportunity."
Spencer left last spring and recently returned to Berkeley from her one-year stint in Switzerland, working for the U.N.'s Compensation Commission.
Her work involved analyzing the environmental claims and organizing a structure for their review by a panel of three commissioners. Using this information, the commissioners made recommendations on how much money should be awarded.
Spencer was ideally suited for the job. A chemical engineer, she spent a number of years working for Chevron on oil pollution issues. For the last decade, she has organized and managed the campus's health and safety efforts. This combination of research and management was just what the U.N. commission wanted.
Spencer had to adjust to living in Geneva, where the climate and surroundings are much different from the Bay Area.
"There were snow-capped mountains everywhere you looked, and it rained at all times of the year, not just in the winter," she said of the conditions in Switzerland. "You don't get fog rolling in every evening either."
Unlike the forested hills of Oakland where Spencer lives, her abode in Geneva was a small, 15th-century flat built along a narrow, stone-paved street. As befitting the Swiss tradition of time keeping, there were clocks everywhere, said Spencer, all synchronized by radio control.
While many she encountered recognized Berkeley as a leading research institution, several viewed the university as a conservative place, much to Spencer's surprise.
"Some people around the world still associate Berkeley with the development of nuclear weapons," said Spencer. "They seemed to have missed the free speech and anti-war movements."
At the United Nations, Spencer led an eight-person team of international experts -- she the only engineer, the rest lawyers. And while they all spoke English, there were still some barriers.
"Coming from a scientific background, it was very different to work with attorneys," said Spencer. "Lawyers can argue their point very well and for a long period of time. I'd reach a point during discussions where I had to tell them to give it up and move on."
The claims they reviewed were submitted by governments, international organizations and private businesses that suffered damage as a result of oil released into the environment, with adverse affects on fish and wildlife, as well as human health.
Spencer learned many valuable strategies during her sabbatical that will enhance her work at Berkeley, she said.
"Listening to multiple perspectives, even more so than I did before, is something I will bring back to the university," said Spencer. "It's important to find a common goal, in spite of wide-ranging viewpoints."
The experience also solidified her commitment to being on the preventative end of environmental issues, in order to limit potential damage. "I'd rather be on the front side than the back."
This helps explain her approach at Berkeley's environmental health and safety unit. Much of what her group does, she says, is proactive and preventative, with an emphasis on educating the campus to reduce accidents and limit hazards.
The department's Web site receives nearly 4,000 hits a day, she said, evidence that Berkeley's program serves as a model for research institutions around the world.
When asked about being a female scientist in a traditionally male field, she said it has both advantages and disadvantages.
"When I graduated from college in the late 1970's, the whole environmental movement was really coming to the forefront, and it seemed a natural progression for women who, like myself, were uncertain about where they fit in the scientific world," said Spencer. "But when I started my professional career, I was often the only woman present at company meetings."
While she never experienced outright discrimination, Spencer said men 10 to 15 years older than her were intimidated by her presence, while those much older were more sympathetic. "Many of them had daughters my age and understood what I was going through."