Monday, June 21, 2010

Gulf spill lessons: Lingering questions about damages to natural resources

By Rebecca Post, Natural Resource Damage Assessment Lead, Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program

As oil keeps gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, Ecology is continuing to identify lessons we can sleuth out from afar. Of course, those working the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill will get that knowledge first hand. Unfortunately, for this environmental catastrophe, Ecology and other Washington State agencies have yet to find a mechanism for getting our employees to the region to get firsthand experience.

Washington’s ‘Natural Resource Damage Assessment’ process for oil spills

My job at Ecology is focused on helping assess damages from oil spills to the public’s natural resources. I work for our Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program. In Washington, we have an established, formalized process called a “Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA)” that attempts to compensate the public for loss or injuries to their resources including:
  • Wildlife and habitats
  • Clean beaches
  • Recreational opportunities
Our NRDA process is very effective in getting money from spillers to perform resource restoration for smaller spills in Washington. Fortunately, we don’t have any oil rigs off our shores. The Deepwater Horizon spill is gigantic and comes from a continuous source 5,000 feet below the water’s surface. While we simply don’t face the same type of spill, there are still some critical NRDA lessons we can learn from the first 60 days of this environmental disaster.

In a big spill here, NRDA process will need command system structure support

The NRDA process is work that generally occurs independently of the Unified Command. In the Gulf spill, Unified Command is led by U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. It is part of the National Incident Management System used in the United States to coordinate emergency preparedness and incident management among various federal, state, and local agencies. This is the system being used to respond to the Gulf spill and the same system we use for responding to oil spills and other environmental emergencies here in Washington. However, in any spill, there are certain aspects about NRDA that will need to be coordinated with general response work inside the command structure. A good example is working with command staff to get word out to the public, elected officials, and media to:

• Help alleviate public fears that “nothing is being done” to assess environmental damages
• Describe NRDA activities
• Outline which agencies and organizations are involved in NRDA activities

Long-term effects of dispersants in deep, cold waters a big unknown

The tradeoffs surrounding the issue of using dispersants is alive and well. The response community understands the physical process of moving oil from the surface into the water column using these chemical agents. However, the dispersant use, both in volume and duration, as well as on and below the surface of the water is unprecedented. I wonder what the final impacts will look like. The unknown effects are huge. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill showed oil can have sub-lethal effects on many different organisms, especially in early life stages. We know little about the lethal and sub-lethal effects of the underwater oil plume and the oil-dispersant mix now in the water column in the Gulf.

The deep ocean is difficult to study. The potential for oil to remain there for a long time is quite real. In the Gulf of Mexico, the ocean surface is much warmer than the deep ocean. Warmer temperatures facilitate faster degradation. By keeping oil dispersed in colder water, there’s the possibility that degradation will take longer. Dealing with those trade-offs are new. From an NRDA perspective, the long-term impacts are critical to determine but not always easy to do. We need long-term scientific research to answer questions about the environmental impacts of oil and dispersants in a deep, cold water environment.

Should have ready agreements in place with our academic institutions here

Scientists and other assets such as research vessels from academic institutions were recruited early during the Gulf spill. Most vessels were on a federal project contract before the incident happened. Washington would be well-served to have prearranged agreements with academic institutions to use their people and equipment to help Washington State during a large spill. These resources would help build our depth of bench and ensure the brightest minds are conducting the scientific studies needed for a good NRDA case.

Getting early baseline data about resources crucial

Since the BP Deepwater Horizon spill started in federal waters, they were in the lead. However, as oil started to threaten the waters of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, federal agencies had to start working with their state counterparts to collect baseline data. There was a great window of opportunity to accomplish this before any oil hit the beaches. In Washington, we have early assessment teams that can grab early baseline data on resource conditions. These baseline data are important pieces of the damage assessment puzzle. We need to continue to refine our process because those early data are vital and we may have the only teams on scene in the early hours. It is critical that we have data that are legally and scientifically defensible, accurate, and appropriate. We may not have the lead time they had in the Gulf.

Need protocol for testing surface washing agent use in Pacific Northwest

Our Northwest Area Contingency Plan which guides oil and hazardous material spill responses in the Pacific Northwest does a poor job addressing the use or testing for surfacing washing agents. Response efforts at the Deepwater Horizon spill are using chemical agents for various aspects of the clean-up and equipment decontamination. Our policy in the Pacific Northwest is silent on the use of these agents or even the methods for going about testing them.

Single source for wildlife information

Initial body counts of dead, captured, and released wildlife were posted to the web by individual contractors in an uncoordinated fashion. Unified Command finally:
• Developed their own tracking sheet
• Posted it to the response web page
• Shut down all ad hoc postings.

This ensures credible data is being generated for public consumption. While BP may be hiring contractors to do wildlife operations, Unified Command should be involved in verifying data and what’s released to the public. To avoid accusations we’re somehow hiding information from the public, this data needs to be verified, credible, and released early.

More NRDA lessons daily

There are new revelations every day that I could add to this list. Oil found in low concentrations at low sea depth cannot be classically “fingerprinted” back to the well blow-out source oil. This implies that potentially new chemical analysis procedures may be coming. The impacts to cultural resources will also be interesting to follow. We are trying to keep our fingers on the pulse of this event and tease out how Washington can learn and be better prepared for spills. The magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon event is so large it seems overwhelming.

Sharing lessons learned from the Gulf

We intend to keep blogging about the lessons learned from the Gulf and how they apply here in Washington. You can send us an email if there is a topic you want to hear about.

No comments: