The government agencies responsible for overseeing the assessment and restoration of natural resources damaged by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico have just announced the beginning of a formal public comment period on the scope of the restoration plan and accompanying environmental impact statement. Unfortunately, the public hasn't yet been provided with very much concrete information on which to comment. Instead, we’ve been bombarded by contradictory descriptions of the degree of the damage and what can and should be done about it. The agencies in charge, known as Trustees and led by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and the Department of Interior, have a duty to clarify the issues and enable the public to participate meaningfully in the restoration of the Gulf ecosystem.
The good news is that the Trustees have launched a massive and unprecedented effort to assess the damage and develop a plan for restoring the Gulf to its pre-spill condition. This process, called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, is required by the Oil Pollution Act to scientifically measure the spill’s impact to natural resources like fish, birds, coastal wetlands, and deepwater habitats. Once sufficient information on the spill’s impact has been collected, the Trustees will make a formal claim to BP and the other responsible parties for the cost of restoration, including compensation for the harm caused to resources in the interim period before they are fully restored, and the cost of the damage assessment itself.
The Trustees are required by law to involve the public in formulating an effective restoration plan, but to do so they need to provide more detailed information on what they are finding and how they are going about it. Unfortunately, this has not occurred and, amidst this vacuum, we continue to hear a series of confusing narratives on what is really happening.
The first storyline goes something like this: the Gulf’s dynamic ecosystem is quickly restoring itself as tiny microbes process most of the oil, allowing natural resources such as fish and clams to recover completely within the next two years or less. The second narrative, both more nuanced and more likely closer to the truth, is that it will take time to fully assess the damage, but some preliminary findings of potentially persistent damage are emerging and should give us pause on drawing final conclusions regarding restoration.
One recent finding, from University of Georgia researcher, Dr. Samantha Joye, provides evidence of widespread dead invertebrates amidst patchy blankets of partially decomposed oil. The study was conducted over 2,600 square miles with over 250 samples. Lessons from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, such as the unexpected collapse of the herring fishery four years after the spill, advise us to take a long-term view of damage assessment and hold off on final conclusions so soon after the largest oil spill in history. It’s clear that the science of the spill’s effects remains highly uncertain and the conclusions drawn from individual studies can be quite misleading.
Nonetheless, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the fund established by BP and run by Kenneth Feinberg, has just decided that final payments for economic damages to fishermen, hoteliers and other Gulf businesses will be based on an uncertain and perhaps inaccurate two-year prediction of full ecological recovery. Even the report on which this calculation is based admits that “realistically, the true loss to the ecosystem and fisheries may not be accurately known for years or even decades…” Despite widespread criticism of the methodology, BP has argued that payments based on a two year recovery estimate are themselves too generous.
The bottom line is that the science is complex and we need time to decipher the extent of the damage and the prognosis for restoration.
This is why we need the natural resource Trustees to show some leadership and provide vital details on the assessment and restoration efforts underway. Given that the process ultimately involves a legal case against the responsible parties, the Trustees are hesitant about making preliminary findings public prior to trial and/or settlement. While this is entirely understandable and we certainly share the desire to ensure they put forth the best possible case, it is also imperative that the Trustees provide guidance to the public and the media by explaining in greater detail what it is doing and how it is going about it.
To this end, NRDC and its partners have been urging the Trustees since last August to release a comprehensive report similar to what was released just five months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The report would provide a discussion of the following:
- the overall scope of the damage assessment;
- descriptions of all assessment plans, including actual and projected costs;
- a list of all emergency and early restoration projects;
- the economic valuation methodologies being used or considered;
- a summary of assessment costs to date and financial needs moving forward;
- a discussion of the participants in the damage assessment and their respective roles and responsibilities;
- a list of which pre-assessment and assessment plans are being conducted cooperatively with responsible parties and a description of the roles and responsibilities of the parties to those plans; and
- the Trustees’ working relationship with BP and other responsible parties, including a description of all agreements, protocols, and procedures for cooperating, communicating, and obtaining funding.
Unfortunately, the Trustees have so far failed to provide this important information despite repeated indications that they are willing to do so.
The deadline for comments on the scope of the draft restoration plan and environmental impact statement is May 18th and public hearings will be held from March 16th to April 6th. If the Trustees are serious about public participation, as they ought to be given the scope of the disaster and how many people were affected, then they would provide the public with the tools needed for meaningful involvement right away and adjust the public comment period accordingly. As the one-year anniversary of the disaster grows closer, the time is past due that the Trustees truly engage the public in this process.
Click here to let the Trustees know how you feel about this.