What’s it take to sal­vage this mess? BP and govern­ment sur­vey to see

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew Brown

BAY RON­QUILLE, La. — The marsh is soaked with oil and the grass is dy­ing. It’s a com­mon sight on the Gulf Coast these days, and it’s noth­ing new for Robert Nailon.

The BP-hired en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tant kneels as he has done many times on the Louisiana coast, as­sess­ing the dam­age in a task now tak­ing on new im­por­tance as the world’s at­ten­tion turns from the ubiq­ui­tous im­ages of gush­ing oil to the daunt­ing task of restora­tion.

He dips his hand, wear­ing a blue rub­ber glove, into the muddy ground. It comes up streaked brown with crude. “You’ve got sheen through­out,” he says, and calls out his find­ings to a govern­ment sci­en­tist: Oil cov­ers about 95 per­cent of the grass, reach­ing about 15 feet in­land.

Both men nod, agree­ing to add this stretch to the painstak­ing cen­sus of the dead from the Gulf of Mex­ico oil spill. About 40 BP-govern­ment teams are try­ing to cat­a­log ev­ery­thing touched by the oil, from

poi­soned plank­ton and fish to lost marshes and stained beaches.

BP PLC will even­tu­ally be given two op­tions: Re­store ev­ery­thing it­self or pay the govern­ment to do it. Be­fore a fi­nal bill is writ­ten, how­ever, those tal­ly­ing the dam­age must still ac­count for things they can’t see — from con­tam­i­nated fish eggs that never hatch to ef­fects that might take years to show.

Some ex­perts worry BP could ex­ploit the un­cer­tainty to lower its re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“If you end up with a bunch of dead fish five years from now, it be­comes very hard to prove BP killed them,” said Mark Davis, di­rec­tor of Tulane Uni­ver­sity’s In­sti­tute on Wa­ter Re­sources Law and Pol­icy.

BP spokesman John Curry de­clined to de­tail any po­ten­tial chal­lenges his com­pany might make re­gard­ing wildlife and habi­tat claims.

“We’re not try­ing to run and hide from the sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “Bot­tom line is we want to know ex­actly what the im­pact is, too.”

So far, about 4,000 birds, more than 700 sea tur­tles, dozens of dol­phins and one whale have been found dead or alive but oiled. Oil has hit about 600 miles of shore­line and at least 44,000 square miles of the Gulf. The tally doesn’t in­clude the hun­dreds of oiled birds left in the wild to avoid dis­turb­ing their nest­ing grounds.

Pin­point­ing dam­age be­neath the Gulf ’s sur­face, how­ever, is turn­ing into an even big­ger prob­lem.

“It’s a 3-D chal­lenge,” said Tom Bros­nan, chief of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s as­sess­ment and restora­tion di­vi­sion. “It’s not just on the shore­line. It’s at depth, down to 5,000 feet in the Gulf.”

The govern­ment is de­ploy­ing re­motely op­er­ated sub­marines to get snap­shots of what is hap­pen­ing in the deep, as well as col­lect­ing wa­ter sam­ples to as­sess the pop­u­la­tions of plank­ton and other small or­gan­isms.

Com­put­ers will use the in­for­ma­tion gath­ered to pro­duce es­ti­mates of how many plank­ton, fish or shrimp are killed based in part on how much habi­tat is ru­ined.

Gaug­ing the con­se­quences could take years and re­quire some cal­cu­lated guess­work to ac­count for wildlife that dies or suf­fers un­seen.

Dur­ing the 11 mil­lion-gal­lon Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 in Alaska, that state priced each seag­ull at $167, ea­gles at $22,000, har­bor seals at $700 and killer whales at $300,000.

The scope of the lat­est cen­sus is enor­mous — the Gulf spill has so far un­leashed 91 mil­lion to 179 mil­lion gal­lons of oil — and the cost of that tally is likely to prove ex­pen­sive in it­self.

In the case of the Valdez, Exxon set­tled with the govern­ment for its restora­tion costs in 1991 for $900 mil­lion. An­other request 15 years later for $92 mil­lion more is pend­ing.

In what could be a cau­tion­ary note for the BP spill, the set­tle­ment with Exxon never ad­dressed a ma­jor ef­fect tied to the Valdez by some sci­en­tists — the col­lapse of the Pa­cific her­ring pop­u­la­tion. That’s in large part be­cause the col­lapse came two years af­ter the 1991 set­tle­ment.

Along the Gulf Coast, where boats were be­ing loaded with cleanup work­ers, Venice, La., char­ter boat fish­er­man Peter Young scoffed at the ef­fort to track the dam­age.

“They’re ba­si­cally spit­ting in the wind,” he said.

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