Irresponsible to declare Gulf oil crisis over

August 6, 2010

A barge hauls booming material near Grand Isle, Louisiana July 23, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Celano

– Dr. Bruce Stein is associate director for wildlife conservation and global warming at the National Wildlife Federation. Any views expressed here are his own. —

Here at the National Wildlife Federation, we’re encouraged by reports of progress in permanently sealing the Gulf oil gusher and at removing oil from the Gulf’s surface. But we’re concerned that both BP and our federal government seem eager to declare the crisis over even as oil continues sullying the habitats on which the Gulf’s wildlife and seafood industry depend.

While Wednesday’s NOAA report touted that only a quarter of the oil is in marshes or still on the surface, it says another quarter was naturally or chemically “dispersed” beneath the surface.

That means about half of the oil, or 103 million gallons – the equivalent of nine Exxon Valdez disasters – remains on or below the Gulf’s surface, fouling coastal and marine habitats and hurting its wildlife.

In just the first few days of August, nearly 600 birds and more than 100 endangered sea turtles have been rescued or found dead. Since the Gulf oil disaster began, more than 5,000 birds, nearly a thousand endangered sea turtles, and dozens of dolphins have been rescued or found dead.

Even if marine life dodges oil at the surface, they’ll find more lurking below. The massive quantities of subsurface “dispersed” oil is far from gone and is of particular concern for the tiny marine creatures, such as plankton and larvae, that form the base of the Gulf’s food chain.

Scientists at Tulane University, for instance, already have found signs of oil inside the shells of tiny blue crab larvae, spelling trouble not only for the crabs, but for the fish and other creatures that feed on them.

The federal government, eager to prove its competence, has leapt to put a positive spin on new developments. Officials also face intense pressure from the drilling, fishing and tourism industries, as well as some local elected officials, to declare this disaster over as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, BP is pouring millions into a public relations blitz suggesting the disaster’s environmental impacts have been mitigated. But having dumped millions of gallons of dispersants into the Gulf in an effort to sink the oil out of sight BP has turned the Gulf’s waters and coast into a toxic chemistry experiment.

The National Wildlife Federation continues to be frustrated by a lack of transparency from BP and federal agencies. On Aug. 3, I signed an open letter with eight other top scientists urging Attorney General Eric Holder and BP CEO Robert Dudley to provide full public release of all scientific data related to the Gulf Coast oil disaster. While it is encouraging that the government has begun releasing some data, other crucial information such as species-specific details of bird oilings and deaths remains unavailable.

Why are we so concerned? Previous oil disasters like the Exxon Valdez show the full impact may not be apparent for months or years to come.

It wasn’t until four years after the Valdez disaster began that local herring stocks collapsed – and more than two decades later, neither that critical food source for people and wildlife—nor the fishing jobs that depended on them—have recovered.

The bottom line is, it’s irresponsible to draw conclusions about the Gulf oil disaster’s full impacts with so many questions still unanswered. We don’t know the full extent of the impacts of this oil disaster on the Gulf’s ecosystems or the communities that depend on it, and won’t know for months or years to come.

The National Wildlife Federation continues to call on Congress to respond to the Gulf oil disaster by:

*  Enacting real energy reforms, including a cap on carbon pollution, that break America’s addiction to oil;

*  Lifting oil companies’ $75 million cap on liability and the cap on punitive damages;

*  Pursuing a vigorous effort to assess the full extent of damages to the Gulf’s wildlife and natural resources; and

*  Making a major national investment to restore the Gulf coast’s ecosystems, including Louisiana’s disappearing

coastal wetlands.

From the first days of the gusher, all eyes have been on the Obama administration to prove that the Gulf oil disaster won’t prove to be its version of Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t just the Bush administration’s slow response in the early days that proved to be its undoing – it was its eagerness to walk away as soon as the cameras were turned off.

President Obama will be judged the same way. Will he stand with the people of the Gulf Coast, working to deliver the reforms and restoration they desperately need?

Like so many other aspects of this disaster, we’re far from knowing the answer.

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Photo shows a barge hauling boom material near Grand Isle, Louisiana July 23, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Celano

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