Friday, July 30, 2010

Senate Hearing On Gulf Natural Resource Damage Assessment

Jul 27: The Senate Environment and Pubic Works (EPW) Committee, Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife, Chaired by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), held a hearing entitled, "Assessing Natural Resource Damages Resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster." Witnesses included representatives from the: Southeast Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS); Assessment and Restoration Division, Office of Response and Restoration National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Smithsonian Institution; Exxon Valdez Trustee Council; Ocean Conservancy; National Aquarium Conservation Center; and Jefferson Parish Council.
    The hearing came two days prior to a report in Time magazine article entitled, "The BP Spill: Has the Damage Been Exaggerated?" Time's environmental reporter Michael Grunwald reports that "the damage seems to have been limited. The number of bird kills is far lower than those occurring after the Exxon Valdez spill, much of the surface oil has already begun to break down in the warm Gulf waters and the sensitive wetlands of Louisiana have largely escaped serious oiling. . ." Grunwald report comes as many reports from the Gulf are indicating that surface oil is actually becoming hard to find and discussions are underway about scaling back the response and recovery operations. Also today (July 30), NOAA reported that the Southern Florida, the Florida Keys and the East Coast are not likely to experience any effects from the remaining oil on the surface [See related article this issue].
    Grunwald, who said the reality of his reporting surprised him. He said it was not what he expected to find. He said, "The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska's Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden's assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I've ever seen that were actually black. . ."

    In a statement on the hearing Senator Cardin said, "BP and its partners are responsible for repairing the environmental destruction they have caused, in addition to the economic devastation. But if we can't trust BP to tell us how much oil had been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico for three months, why should we trust them when it comes to assessing the damage they have done to our environment?. We can't afford to have the same incomplete approach to assessment when it comes to cleaning our waters and restoring our fishing stocks or bird populations or any of the other critical ecosystem restoration tasks that lie ahead.

    "If we are going to get the restoration work done right and if we are going to hold BP and its partners accountable for the true extent of the damage they've caused, then we need an accurate and complete assessment. The answers developed through a Natural Resource Damage Assessment determine the size of the bill presented to BP and its partners. They shape the scale and scope of the restoration work done to repair the damage. This is a legal process, conducted by federal and state agencies, to identify how natural resources have been injured, the best methods for restoring them, and the type and amount of restoration needed to compensate the public.

    "The first priority in this disaster has been to stop the flow of oil from well. We're heartened by recent progress and hope the well will soon be sealed for good. We must ensure our responders have the resources and organization they need to remove the oil that's in the water and to protect the Gulf coast. But even when the oil is removed to the extent possible, it will not be enough to fully restore water and wildlife or compensate the public for the loss of these natural resources.

    Senator Inhofe said, "I am working on a report on the Administration's response to the BP incident thus far.  To date we have discovered numerous bureaucratic delays to mitigation and containment caused by federal entities, and I look forward to a thoughtful discussion on some of those issues today. After the tragic Exxon Valdez spill, which occurred over 20 years ago now, Congress worked diligently to pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) to help address many of the legislative gaps and shortcomings highlighted by that tragedy.  The OPA was created with the important goals of strengthening federal authority over oil spill removal actions, creating a federal liability scheme for addressing oil spills, and addressing the issues of removal costs and damages.  OPA established a solid framework for response that was missing during the Exxon Valdez spill. This hearing can help us examine the process of natural resource damage assessment currently underway and hopefully give us the necessary guidance to improve any inadequacies. . ."
    The FWS explained that when an oil spill occurs, response efforts and the natural resource damage assessment and restoration (NRDAR) process under the Oil Pollution Act and its implementing regulations begin immediately. The U.S. Coast Guard leads response activities related to marine and coastal oil spills while the U.S. EPA is the lead for inland or hazardous waste spills. Other Federal and state agencies assist in the process. FWS said, "The scope and magnitude of natural resource injuries and other impacts resulting from the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill are extraordinary and still not fully known. We do not know at this time the extent of the injuries, but we believe that in all likelihood, they will affect fish, wildlife and plant resources in the Gulf, and possibly in other areas across the country, for years or more likely decades to come."

    Dr. Robert B. Spies, President, Applied Marine Sciences; Former Chief Scientist, Exxon Valdez Trustee Council testified, "It is critically important that we do all we can to ensure that the pre- and post-impact status of the Gulf ecosystems, including contaminant characterizations, is being assessed and documented as rigorously as possible in at least the most biologically productive and sensitive parts of the Gulf coast. These areas include the estuaries and especially the marshes and wetlands behind the barrier islands along the coast, which are the breeding and nursery grounds of myriad aquatic, intertidal, and avian species. Given the widespread and intensive application of chemical dispersants, the very large amounts of oil on the ocean's surface, and the presence of large quantities of subsurface oil, it also is critical to be sampling oceanic surface, deepwater and bottom communities as well."

    Access the hearing website and link to testimony, statements and a webcast (click here). Access the Time article (click here). Access a video interview with Time's Michael Grunwald and Bernard Charbonnet, former chairman of the New Orleans Port Authority on Hardball with Chris Matthews (click here). Access a release from Sen. Cardin (click here).