Oil-impact study may take 20 years


HOUMA — An inventory of environmental impacts from the BP oil spill may take as long as two decades to complete, a top aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal said. But with Louisiana’s deteriorating coast on the line, the state is lining up emergency restoration projects it wants BP to pay for today.

The Natural Resources Damage Assessment is a study by Louisiana, the federal government and other Gulf Coast states that creates a ledger of environmental losses. Created after the Exxon-Valdez spill under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the study requires scientists to count every dead turtle and bird, every acre of affected marsh and every lost day for fishermen and swimmers. Researchers also look at the longer-term survival rate of flora and fauna that came in contact with oil. Then they create a restoration plan to make up for those losses, and BP pays to implement it.

“This study’s purpose is to get the oil spill’s impacts quantified,” Garret Graves, a top coastal aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal, told the state Oyster Advisory Committee Wednesday in Houma.

But with the magnitude of the Gulf spill, in which 4.9 million barrels of oil were released, Graves said the process could take as long as 20 years.

“Obviously, given the urgent problems we face in our environment here in Louisiana, that’s entirely unacceptable,” Graves said. He said the state is asking for money up front to pay for restoration projects.

Drue Banta, representing the state in the assessment process, said the state and federal agencies are close to signing an agreement that will be presented to BP to request money in advance.

State officials say getting an early share is especially important for Louisiana, which wants to use its portion build coastal-restoration projects already are approved by Congress.

Graves said Louisiana officials have identified three emergency restoration projects that BP has preliminarily agreed to pay for:

  • Plant grasses and other vegetation along Louisiana marsh shorelines and dunes where erosion is imminent. The state is doing reconnaissance to identify shorelines or marsh sites that might be good candidates for this kind of project, said Patrick Banks, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
  • Restore migratory-bird habitats, such as wetlands and coastal forests, mostly in Mississippi.
  • Survey underwater plants.

Officials have not yet estimated the projects’ costs.

In addition, Banta said, the state is working to create “strike teams” that will be on call in coastal parishes to immediately respond and investigate reports of any new oil that emerges.

As much as half of Louisiana’s oyster crop in the Barataria Basin and east of the Mississippi River was wiped out, not by oil but by fresh water the state released from diversions along the Mississippi River. The hope was to flush oil out of interior wetlands. The fresh water flooded brackish basins and caused salt levels to plunge, killing oysters.

Heather Finley, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the agency is surveying 60 sites on public oyster grounds in Louisiana and 10 in Mississippi to determine more clearly how many oysters were killed.

While there are estimates of damage to oyster beds, there’s been no formal figure of how much of 2010’s summer crop was wiped out.

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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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