Marking a Year of Hell on the Gulf: Tracking Oil Spill Impacts Is More Critical Than Ever


The “Mission Accomplished” narrative scripted by BP and its allies in the Obama Administration keeps getting harder to sell as the one-year anniversary of the spill approaches. If it’s not dead dolphins washing ashore or new oil hitting our beaches or more cleanup workers getting sick, it’s those pesky independent researchers ruining everything by refusing to follow the “official” talking points. Try as they might, BP and the federal government can’t muzzle independent research, a reality that’s reflected in a new report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

The NWF – hardly a fringe group, with more than 4 million members and supporters – focuses on the soaring “dolphin mortality” rate as a sign that the spill continues to batter the Gulf ecosystem in very concrete, quantifiable ways. Independent researchers estimate that more than 6,500 dolphins may have died (many lost at sea) in just the first three months of 2011. And while the NWF report doesn’t break much new ground on the scientific front, it does connect some important dots and ultimately takes the realistic position that much of the damage will not be evident for years. But the fact that we see dolphins – mammals near the top of the food chain – dying off in record numbers could be an early indication that there are serious problems farther down the chain.

How long the damage will last and how severe the long-term impacts will be have been a point of contention since the Macondo well was capped in July of last year. The debate has been particularly tense surrounding victim compensation for groups like commercial fishermen, charter boat captains and coastal property owners. The $20 billion claims fund, administered by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, is basing its “final payment” structure on a BP-funded Texas A&M study that assumes the Gulf will recover by 2012. How convenient for BP, don’t you think?

The NWF report doesn’t look through such thick rose-colored glasses, offering a relatively grown-up “wait and see” assessment: “Other oil spill disasters have taken years to reveal their full effects and often recovery is still not complete after decades.” And Douglas Inkley, a senior NWF scientist, said it’s far from clear what the long-term impacts will be on the Gulf’s wildlife and marine life, including Bluefin tuna, shrimp, sea turtles, dolphins and pelicans.

We can look forward to the release of more reports and studies – like the one conducted by NWF – on or around the first-year anniversary. Some of them will simply note findings that NOAA’s BP-friendly media relations department neglected to announce. The Associated Press, for example, is reporting that “…blue crabs, another Gulf delicacy, are also raising a red flag. Researchers have found droplets of an unidentified orange substance under the shells of baby crabs caught at seven coastal sites, from Galveston, Texas, to Apalachicola, Fla., says Caz Taylor, a Tulane University biologist involved in the research.”

“Cascading effects” are a major concern among scientists studying the spill’s ongoing impacts. For example, the possible contamination of blue crabs (mentioned above) could impact marine life and wildlife further up the food chain, like fish, sharks, herons, egrets, ducks and raccoons. The adverse effects could cascade across a wide range of species, including humans.

The destructive impact of the oil and toxic dispersant on sargassum, a common food and nesting place for turtles, could very well affect the ability of the turtles to survive in the post-spill Gulf. The AP reports:

…sea turtles were hit hard by the spill, the [NWF] report said. It noted that turtle strandings were eight times higher than the 22-year average between May and June last year during the height of the spill. The report also said that 481 of the 609 known turtle deaths were Kemp’s ridley turtles, an endangered species that only nests in the Gulf. Oil damage to sargassum, a floating seaweed that is an important forage and nesting spot for turtles, is another concern, the report said.

As the debate over environmental impacts continues, the legal repercussions remain in flux. The Wall Street Journal notes this week:

…federal law requires the U.S. government to document a spill’s environmental damage – a process called a Natural Resource Damage Assessment – and requires companies found responsible to pay to fix the damage. If the government and the companies can’t agree on a settlement, the fight can end up in court…though much of the investigation remains shrouded in legal secrecy, scientists working for the government have publicly reported some data. BP representatives accompany government officials during field work, and the oil company is also funding research. University scientists, most funded by the government, are doing studies of their own.

I would add that independent research must play a significant role in determining the official damage assessment and the legal outcomes. We simply cannot rely on NOAA to give us an accurate assessment of the impacts. The agency has lowballed the extent of the damages time and again, essentially shielding BP from accountability.

So as the one-year milestone approaches – and BP and the federal government continue to wish this disaster away – the rest of us (led by independent researchers) must rededicate ourselves to monitoring the spill’s impacts. We must make the strongest possible case for the responsible companies to pay for the restoration of the Gulf – from our wetlands to our oyster reefs, from our beaches to our fisheries.

The Gulf Coast culture hangs in the balance.

Here’s the AP story on the NWF report, via the Miami Herald:

Here’s the WSJ report:

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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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