GRN Shadows NOAA-Led Damage Pre-Assessment

Assessing the damage caused to the Gulf by the BP deepwater drilling disaster is a monumental task, but is necessary to ensure that BP pays for the restoration of the coast and ocean that they have destroyed. The formal mechanism to assess these damages comes from the 1990 Oil Pollution Act (OPA), which states that a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) must be done. NRDA is a legal process to determine the type and amount of restoration needed to compensate the public for harm to natural resources and their human uses that occur as a result of an oil spill. This assessment is supposed to be conducted by trustees, which include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and natural resource agencies from the impacted states, as well as the responsible party (BP).That being said, last Thursday I was invited by NOAA to “shadow” one of their NRDA pre-assessment trips, where they were trying to assess the presence of sub-surface oil in areas in Barataria Bay and to the east of Grand Isle. I took them up on their offer, so and I, along with folks from Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy, hopped into 2 flat-bottom boats in Barataria and followed the assessment team as they stopped in several places in Barataria Bay to see if there was sub-surface oil. They were using plastic “pom-poms,” which adhere to oil, to detect sub-surface oil. (Click here for pictures that I took of NOAA deploying pom-poms, oiled marshes, floating emulsified oil, skimmer boats and other interesting things on the trip.) NOAA Staff Deploying Oil-Detection Sentinel With Plastic “Pom-Poms”Basically the idea is that oil is attracted to and sticks to the pom-poms, so NOAA thinks that this might be a quick and easy way to assess the presence and relative quantity of sub-surface oil. Utilizing these pom-pom arrays, they measured oil by dragging them along the bottom of the shallow water, weighing them down to rest at the bottom of the shallow water for 24 hours, and attaching them to a pole and submerging the pole vertically for 24 hours.As we shadowed the NRDA team, we saw several boats filled with boom, workers on the shore, and a couple skimmers. One interesting thing was the amount of dolphins that were well into the Bay. Our boat Captain said that he had never seen so much dolphin activity. I can’t attribute this strange behavior to the oil directly, but there certainly seems to be a correlation.In total, the NRDA team made 5-6 stops where the sampling arrays were deployed. We were not able to get too close to the team at the first few sampling points, where they apparently found light oil after dragging the arrays along the bottom near the shore. We were allowed to get a little closer for the last couple sampling stations (after we were chased ashore by an incoming lightning storm), but never got to see them drag the arrays up close.Oiled Wetlands on Barrier Island While we were out, we passed an island that was chock-full of nesting pelicans and roseate spoon bills. This haven was surrounded by boom and did not have any obvious oil. Other barrier islands were not so lucky, as we passed some areas that had obvious damage from oil. While we did not see any heavily oiled wildlife, we did see some birds fishing and dolphins surfacing in areas that had a light oily sheen. Oil In Barataria BayFrom what I gather, this NRDA team was one of a couple dozen pre-assessment teams that are assessing potential impacts to the ecosystem, ranging from wildlife to shoreline damage. I hope that NOAA continues to invite environmental groups and concerned citizens on these NRDA trips, as they have the potential to make the damage assessment process more transparent, which should be their goal.Matt is Water Resources Program Director for GRN