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Science should learn from oil spill

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POSTED: August 2, 2010 2:25 p.m.
The Gulf of Mexico has been inundated with the equivalent of more than an Exxon Valdez-size spill each week -- threatening the health of the marine environment, the public and the livelihoods of gulf residents.
From the first day of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Gulf Coast residents have wanted to know how much oil was spilling; where it was coming from and where it was going; what effects the oil would have on coastal ecosystems and how fast they would recover; and how this tragic event was going to affect their health, their jobs and their communities. Unfortunately, the government, BP and scientists were not prepared to answer those questions. Three months later, we still have more questions than answers.
The major federal scientific response to date has been focused on the Natural Resources Damages Assessment (NRDA) process prescribed by the Ocean Pollution Act of 1990, as the government begins to build its case against BP to ensure that the nation is reimbursed for the immense damage done to the environment. It has also been widely reported that BP has been engaging academic scientists for its NRDA defense. Billions of dollars are at stake, so litigation is likely to go on for years.
Because the NRDA is an adversarial process, both sides will seek to use science in a legal context, with the administration attempting to maximize financial damages and BP trying to minimize them. Much of the information obtained from research and monitoring will be tied up in the courts rather than being made publicly available and scrutinized.
The broader scientific community will be unable to use much of this information to understand the ongoing effects of the oil and dispersants, or to help our nation’s policymakers better prepare for future accidents.
Early on, there was hope for development of a comprehensive science plan that would enable the nation to learn from this disaster and better understand the effects of oil spills on the marine environment  and coastal communities. The aim was to integrate the efforts of federal agencies with academic research capacities. An initial effort to provide support for such a plan was spearheaded by BP, which announced in May that it would launch a 10-year, $500 million research initiative based on a peer-reviewed process separate from the NRDA process. Results from research funded by this initiative were to be made available to the public and subject to peer review. We hoped that this research would be based in part on recommendations that resulted from a symposium convened at Louisiana State University in June, when more than 200 researchers from across the nation discussed the scientific needs for understanding the ecological impact -- such as the spill’s toxicity and effect on the food chain -- and other consequences of oil, gas and dispersant contamination.
While $30 million was allocated, the BP research initiative is unfortunately on hold. More than six weeks ago, the White House requested that the company work closely with Gulf Coast governors and state and local environmental and health authorities to determine the next steps for this initiative. A decision has yet to be reached.
Our nation needs a comprehensive science plan to learn from and respond better to this tragedy. Those working in academia, federal and state government, nongovernmental organizations, and industry need to be consulted and included. The federal government must also make funding available, apart from the NRDA process, to enable independent, peer-reviewed science to be undertaken.
We need these things now. Every day of delay means more valuable data is not being collected, and ultimately lost. After the Exxon Valdez spill, it took more than three years for a research initiative to come to fruition, a terrible loss of scientific opportunity and information critical to planning and implementing better responses to future spills.
President Obama signed an executive order last week establishing a national policy for the stewardship of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. The White House needs to express similar leadership when it comes to the gulf region’s marine environment and the research necessary to understand it with respect to the spill. We hope this can still be a “teachable moment” and not another lost opportunity.

This first appeared in the Washington Post. Gagosian is president and chief executive of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and a former director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. D’Elia is dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. LSU has received funding from BP for research on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

 

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