BP and NOAA Slam the Door on Independent Research


Independent research has been the bane of both BP’s existence and its cronies, correcting the “official narrative” time and again. The embarrassments began with the oil-flow estimates and continued through to the “all clear” on seafood contamination. But the company, perhaps sensing where its real long-term liability exists, is slamming the door on independent research by refusing to supply official samples of the Deepwater Horizon oil.

The samples are important because they allow scientists to connect the oil washing up on beaches or found inside seafood to BP’s runaway Macondo well.

That’s vital, because eventually, as bizarre as it might seem now, BP will begin asserting that nobody can prove oil fouling marshes and washing onto beaches was from its spill. That’s what Exxon did in Alaska, and it’s pretty much standard procedure in the world of Big Oil spills.

So, since September, BP has shut off distribution of its samples. Normally, you wouldn’t worry because NOAA and government agencies have plenty of samples – but NOAA is again operating as an ally of BP and not distributing samples either. In fact, distribution of the samples pretty much stopped back in September.

Anyone expecting Big Oil to play nice with evidence – and these samples are indeed evidence – is hopelessly naive. But it’s worth noting that BP, in taking this action, hides behind a standard “preservation order” from a federal judge. Such orders are routine, and demand that parties to legal action not destroy any evidence. It’s a bit of a petty slap-back, but apparently effective when NOAA plays along. The government says it needs to preserve samples to make sure it has enough for its legal needs.

For the record, all the samples we’ve collected over the months were subject to obsessive measures to ensure that they will be accepted as evidence in court.

How outrageous is this BP-NOAA action? The journal Nature has a detailed report, and my research colleagues assure me the story is spot-on. The article recounts the serious problems researchers have had with access to samples from early on in this disaster.

“Ira Leifer, an oil-spill expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was part of the US-government-led task force that produced the official flow-rate estimate for the spill. He began requesting samples within days of the initial blowout for work to support efforts to improve remote sensing of surface oil, but eventually gave up.”

One of the lead researchers on my team, civil engineer Marco Kaltofen, has had similar experiences: “In my own laboratory at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I have three separate experiments on air and water toxicity that are frozen in place for lack of any official BP oil samples.”

Why is BP being difficult? Nature explains that “… working as a representative of the government, Leifer originally thought that getting samples would be relatively easy. ‘But it didn’t work that way,’ he says. ‘At the time it was unclear exactly how much was by design and how much was due to the chaotic nature of the response. However, the pattern repeated itself.’ He thinks that similar to BP’s apparent reluctance to release video footage of the spill early on, the lack of sample distribution could be a tactic aimed at minimizing the information ultimately available on spill impacts.”

To that I would point out that this is not all about lawsuit and legal wrangling. Lots of this research focuses on long-term health of Gulf residents, or other issues like possible seafood contamination.

It’s bad enough, though not unexpected, that BP is fighting independent research – but the real outrage is that our own government seems to be joining in the effort.

See the excellent, and important, Nature report here: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110114/full/news.2011.18.html

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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