News Column

Year After BP Oil Spill, Residents Leery of What's Next

April 18, 2011

Karen Nelson

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The BP oil spill is one year old this week. The whole disaster killed or injured 28 rig workers, thousands of birds and hundreds of marine animals, and spewed 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf over three months.

The disaster has helped to focus an intense spotlight on a Gulf already suffering from human encroachment. Between 4,000 and 8,000 square miles of sea bottom die each summer from lack of oxygen and coastal wetlands the size of Rhode Island have been lost in Louisiana in recent decades.

Yet, beaches along the northern Gulf attract billions in tourism dollars, the seafood industry supports thousands of families and the waters act as a nursery for many species, some that only breed in the Gulf.

In the year since the disaster, BP has continued to manage the event, promising restoration and holding out that both the environment and peoples' livelihoods will be made whole eventually.

Meanwhile, an army of federal and state agencies are on a fact-finding mission to tally the damage to natural resources and encourage BP to make restitution in a process that is growing by the day, with more than 30,000 samples collected and tens of thousands of other pieces of evidence involved.

It's a process that has been successful with smaller spills in getting oil companies to pay without going to court.

But there are so many kinds of damage with the BP spill that hundreds of lawsuits have been filed. After all, NOAA's Troy Baker in the assessment division said last week, "No one has faced a region-wide oil spill before. We have a region-wide set of impacts, from the ecology to human use of the Gulf."

It's that same process, however, that is creating a type of gag order on findings from the Gulf -- keeping scientists who are contributing to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment quiet until all is settled, which could be years. And that comes while other noted scientists are working for BP.

The process is leaving those who live along the northern Gulf distrusting of government, optimistic about the beaches and this year's crop of seafood, but leery that what lies below the surface of the Gulf in the water and on the sea floor will haunt them for decades and generations.

Evidence it's gone

The Gulf is big, 600,000 square miles. The oil spill amount has been likened to a football field cubed. The amount of dispersants used was 1.84 million gallons.

All was released into an eco-system that is fragile and very diverse -- from ancient, slow-growing coral reefs in the deep to thousands of square miles of shallow marshlands.

"There's good evidence that a large part of the oil is degraded or diluted away," said Dr. Joe Griffitt, aquatic toxicologist with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab. "There are trillions and trillions of gallons of water in the Gulf."

But for toxicology, that's not the point.

Having it in the breeding grounds at all during the spring and summer reproduction cycles last year could leave a lasting mark.

"While it was a dirty Gulf, there's no way releasing that much oil and dispersant in the water is good for anybody," he said.

But looking back, Griffitt said, "For a long time the oil stayed in the middle of the Gulf, had it gone inland faster to the estuaries, it would have been much worse."

Sorting out the long-term effects of the oil and dispersant will take time.

In a recently released study, scientists found the dispersant Corexit present in the water 200 miles from the well head as long as two months after the company stopped spraying it, which shows it existed longer than expected, Griffitt said.

Money and science

USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab has spent a lot of its own money to gather baseline and other information essential to long-term studies.

And there's no substantial money coming in, said its director, Bill Hawkins.

Guidelines aren't even out for how to apply for the $500 million BP set aside for long-term research.

Gulf researchers are anxiously awaiting that.

"It's the biggest pot of money available," Griffitt said.

All the while, reports of turtles and dolphins dying in extraordinary numbers nine and 10 months after the spill leave the public worried and distrustful.

"If there's a major negative coming out of this," Hawkins said, "it's the mistrust of government agencies and political bodies."

He said NOAA has done a solid job of proving the seafood is safe to eat with outstanding scientists and the latest in equipment, but people don't believe it.

Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, attributes that mistrust to the way data is being whisked away for the court cases. "Putting restrictions on independent work, then not having answers, makes people anxious.

"And if you're going to fix things, you need to know what's broke. We need a quicker response," he said. "This waiting to the end to say 'we think this is what happened,' people don't want that. By then it's too late to do anything."

Applying money

Gaming revenues dropped 15 percent along the Coast according to one university study, the stream of beach-goers shut off like a faucet when news of the oil gusher spread and hotels and restaurants reported a poor showing in an industry that had begun to crawl out of the hole after Katrina.

All told, BP says it has paid state and local governments more than $754 million and reimbursed the federal government for another $694 million.

Personal businesses have been considerably slower to collect their claims.

"The perception of oil is out there, even with the food," said Matt McDonnell of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center. "We still need a strong message that the food is safe and the beaches are clean."

The real test will be this summer, when BP cleanup workers aren't using hotels. Weekday occupancy actually went up last summer, according to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, but average daily rates were down.

Animal numbers

The government totals last year on wildlife killed or harmed include 1,149 sea turtles, 115 dolphins and whales, and more than 8,000 birds.

Since these counts were tabulated, media reports indicate 181 dead turtles, most of them the endangered Kemp's Ridley, have washed ashore and 190 additional dolphins.

Scientists estimate 50 times as many marine mammals die as are found washed ashore. But in a report last week, while advocating Gulf restoration and ranking the prospects for wetlands, bluefin tuna and sea turtles "poor," the National Wildlife Federation ranked the outlook for pelicans, dolphins and shrimp as "good."

Source: Copyright (c) 2011, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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