With oil well capped, scientists begin assessing spill’s environmental toll


With the Deepwater Horizon well capped, federal officials have turned their energies toward holding BP accountable for the environmental damage caused by hundreds of millions of gallons of oil loosed into the Gulf.

An army of federal scientists 300 strong is focused on the area surrounding Mobile. Hundreds more work in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The goal is to create an official reckoning of the environmental toll, from the most obvious — 3,761 dead birds and counting, according to BP — to losses so subtle that no one is even sure how to measure them. How, for instance, do you attach a dollar sign to trillions of dead planktonic organisms that can be identified only with a microscope?

Complicating the process, BP has an army, too, with scientists spread along the coastline from Texas to Florida hunting for the same answers that the government seeks. Both sides say that they hope to reach a consensus on what has been damaged and what it will take to begin to restore the Gulf of Mexico.

“BP is on the hook for compensating the public for any losses to natural resources. Obviously you can’t go out and just buy a new pelican,” said Pete Tuttle, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist spearheading part of the government’s assessment. “We won’t know the full impact of the spill for decades. There will be negative effects at every level of the ecosystem. Our challenge is finding them.”

The primary tool used to figure out what has been lost is the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, or NRDA. In essence, it amounts to a civil lawsuit, one that could take many years to settle.

Federal officials are laboring under restrictions designed to ensure that the data they collect can be used as evidence. For instance, scientists are not allowed to even view the photos they take of dead bird carcasses. Instead, they must immediately upload the photos to a federal website, apparently to ensure that no one has doctored the images.

While the evidence-gathering is under way, federal agencies must also work to limit further spill-related damage, particularly among migrating birds. Toward that end, wildlife refuges as far inland as Arkansas have begun flooding their wetland areas in an attempt to lure birds heading further south for the winter.

“Any birds we can attract away from the coast, away from contaminated areas, that will help minimize the losses,” Tuttle said.

Such fixes are not possible for marine creatures, everything from crabs and fish to sea turtles and whales. Biologists are attempting to get a fix on how to calculate losses that are essentially invisible. Studies will determine how quickly a carcass washed ashore on the beach would be consumed by crabs, how far a dead bird might drift on ocean currents, and how many animals would normally turn up dead at this time of year.

Biologists say there are also many moving targets in the assessment, with unknown numbers of animals possibly slowly succumbing to oil-related deaths weeks or even months after exposure.

“Typically, with a spill in the North, the birds get oiled, the insulating qualities of their feathers are compromised and they die of hypothermia,” Tuttle said. “The South in the summer, that’s not the case. There are a lot of lightly to moderately oiled birds that survive for periods of time. Do they ultimately survive? Are their immune systems compromised? We don’t know.”

Officials have been releasing moderately oiled birds with radio collars on them so their survival can be monitored. Similar experiments are in progress across the Gulf ecosystem, with different groups studying birds, fish, marine mammals, aquatic vegetation, coral, shoreline areas, the plankton community, and changes in the water chemistry of the Gulf.

In the years going forward, changes seen in the numbers of juvenile and adult populations of just about everything that lives in or around the Gulf, from ducks to parrot fish to barnacles, will figure into the amount that BP ultimately owes.

“In the end, how do we make sure the public is compensated for the losses to their natural resources? We’re looking at habitat restoration, repairing marshland, nesting areas, in general removing the bottlenecks that are limiting productivity. The goal is to bring things back to the way they were as quickly as possible,” Tuttle said. “Then, hopefully, the restoration efforts will enhance the ecosystem beyond where it was before.”

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

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