Five Years after BP Oil Spill: Focus Should Be on Continued Need for Restoration

April 16, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Media Resources

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Emily Guidry Schatzel, National Wildlife Federation, 225.253.9781, schatzele@nwf.org
Jacques Hebert, National Audubon Society, 504.264.6849, jhebert@audubon.org
Elizabeth Van Cleve, Environmental Defense Fund, 202.553.2543, evancleve@edf.org

Five Years after BP Oil Spill: Focus Should Be on Continued Need for Restoration  

Leading Conservation Groups Challenge BP to Stop Campaign of Misinformation, Fund Restoration

(New Orleans, LA—April 16, 2015) Monday, April 20, marks five years since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and spewing at least 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In advance of the memorial, leading national and local conservation organizations working on Mississippi River Delta and Gulf Coast restoration – Environmental Defense FundNational Audubon SocietyNational Wildlife Federation and Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation – released the following statement:

“As we approach the fifth anniversary of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, there is no question that the damage unleashed by the BP oil spill is serious, evident and ongoing. Five years have passed and BP is still sidestepping responsibility.

“Despite BP’s attempts to convince the public through high-priced publicity campaigns that the Gulf is fine, the negative impacts of its ‘gross negligence’ will be felt for decades. BP claims that the Gulf’s natural resources have rebounded, but peer-reviewed scientific studies and visible ongoing effects tell another story. Five years later, 10 million gallons of oil remain on the Gulf floor. Last month, a 25,000-pound BP tar mat was discovered on a Louisiana barrier island. And Cat Island – an important nesting site for brown pelicans and other coastal birds – has nearly disappeared since the spill. Even more troubling are the lingering effects not visible: significant damage from oil and chemical dispersants to the food web, wildlife and overall ecosystem of the Gulf Coast.

“In the courts of public opinion and science, BP’s claims that the spill’s effects are limited and that the Gulf has recovered have no merit. Rather than wasting additional precious time and money dodging blame, it’s time for BP to drop the publicity campaign, let the courts and scientific process decide, and then quickly pay for the damage it caused.

“The Gulf Coast depends on a healthy ecosystem to feed and fuel the nation, so ensuring that it’s comprehensively restored is not just a regional issue – it’s of utmost importance to people across the country. A recent poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe BP should pay the maximum fine allowed under the Clean Water Act. Clearly, America is stronger when the Gulf is stronger, both ecologically and economically. But in addition to the effects of the spill, Louisiana has been facing a land loss crisis for decades – since the 1930s, we have lost 1,900 square miles of land. Nowhere is restoration more needed than in the Mississippi River Delta, which was ground zero for the Gulf oil disaster. BP should put its money where it is most needed, toward meaningful restoration of America’s Gulf Coast, as opposed to legal fees and promotional dollars.

“We have a historic opportunity to restore the health of our wetlands, revive Gulf Coast economies that depend on them and make the Gulf Coast better than it was before the spill – but we must begin restoration now. Implementation of restoration plans cannot fully begin until BP accepts responsibility and pays. Thanks to vehicles like Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and the RESTORE Act of 2012 – which ensures that the Clean Water Act fines BP pays will be used for restoration – and by implementing our coalition’s recommended 19 priority projects, true progress can be made along the Gulf Coast before it’s too late.”

Background:

Since the BP oil disaster five years ago, ongoing findings deliver truths omitted by BP’s ads: the oil disaster’s negative effects are increasingly clear, present and far from resolved.

A new infographic depicts ongoing impacts of the Gulf oil disaster five years later. And over the past year alone, new scientific research has surfaced:

  • A 2014 study found evidence of a 1,250-square-mile area of oil contamination on the ocean floor around the Macondo wellhead in deep Gulf sediments.
  • A new NOAA study found a large number of dead dolphins in heavily oiled places, including Barataria Bay, La.
  • Recent studies estimate 800,000 birds died as a result of being exposed to BP oil.
  • Modeling for a recent stock assessment projected that between 20,000 and 60,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles died in 2010 as a result of the spill.
  • A 2014 study found concentrations of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) – which can cause harmful effects in many birds, fish and wildlife – in Barataria and Terrebonne marshes, which may persist for decades.
  • A 2012 study found that oiled marshes in Barataria Bay eroded at double the rate of non-oiled marshes.
  • A recent survey found that 70 percent of Americans believe BP should pay maximum fines under the Clean Water Act for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

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Using adaptive management to help restore coastal Louisiana

April 15, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 2012 Coastal Master Plan, 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), Reports, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Restoration Project Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

This post is part of a series about oil spill early coastal restoration funding and projects, be sure to check out parts one and two.

In November 2014, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) announced that its Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund would award more than $13.2 million to Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) to fund and further develop parts of its Adaptive Management Program. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan has been designed around an adaptive management approach to ecosystem restoration. The parts of the adaptive management program funded through NFWF will help CPRA make decisions about current and future barrier island and river diversion projects.

What is adaptive management and why is it important?

Adaptive management is a foundational concept in modern ecosystem management and restoration. The primary motivation behind adaptive management is to reduce the uncertainty surrounding actions that will affect an ecosystem or natural resource.

Using a combination of active and passive learning – experimentation and monitoring, respectively – adaptive management answers questions and provides information about how ecosystems react to management actions, such as restoration projects, as part of a science-based decision-making process.

Monitoring is one of the most important components of effective ecosystem restoration and management, though its necessity and usefulness are often misunderstood or overlooked. Monitoring is essential because it helps keep managers informed about short- and long-term trends in an ecosystem.

Long-term monitoring is particularly important because ecosystems are complex, sensitive and often slow to change. For projects, monitoring is essential for proving success or identifying possible areas for improvement or changes in operations.

While project-level monitoring is helpful in learning about localized outcomes of restoration, the BP oil spill highlighted the lack of coordinated, comprehensive monitoring throughout the Gulf region. There are multiple ongoing monitoring efforts in Louisiana, some of which are both long-term and large-scale. However, without coordination among systems, the information produced through monitoring cannot be used to its highest potential in adaptive management, which is an integral part of large-scale ecosystem restoration.

CPRA’s Adaptive Management Program

CPRA’s Adaptive Management Program is made up of more than 20 different components, four of which will be supported by NFWF funds over the next three years.

Coast-wide Reference Monitoring System

CRMS stations

CRMS monitoring stations in coastal Louisiana. Photo: CRMS

Louisiana, in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey and funding from the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), has had the Coast-wide Reference Monitoring System (CRMS-Wetlands) in operation for more than a decade. Although the large-scale and long-term information produced by this monitoring system has been very useful, it is not fully comprehensive because it is limited to wetlands.

Barrier Island Comprehensive Monitoring Program

The Barrier Island Comprehensive Monitoring (BICM) program, which was implemented in 2006, was designed to complement CRMS-Wetlands. BICM provides long-term data on Louisiana’s barrier islands to help inform the planning, design, evaluation and maintenance of barrier island restoration projects.

System-Wide Assessment and Monitoring Program

Near Caminada Bay

CRMS monitoring station in salt marsh near Caminada Bay. Monitoring gauges are contained in the pipes. Photo: CRMS

The concept of a System-Wide Assessment and Monitoring Program (SWAMP) for coastal Louisiana has been envisioned since the development of CRMS-Wetlands and was proposed under the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study. Although CRMS-Wetlands and BICM are seen as building blocks for SWAMP, these programs do not monitor many important elements of the ecosystem, including coastal waters, non-tidal freshwater habitats, riverine conditions or natural resources, such as fisheries.

CPRA and The Water Institute of the Gulf recently presented on the latest SWAMP components developed, including programmatic monitoring plans at the coast-wide and basin-wide scales and a basin-specific monitoring plan for the Barataria region. The Barataria monitoring plan is nested within the coast-wide framework and its application will serve as the pilot for basin- and coast-wide implementation of SWAMP.

Small-scale Physical Model

Once built,the expanded small-scale physical model the will be one of the largest moving bed models in the world. Representing the lower Mississippi River from Donaldsonville to the Gulf of Mexico in 90 feet by 120 feet, the expanded model will be four times larger in both scale and size than the existing physical model.

Because it is difficult to experiment at the large scale needed for coastal restoration in Louisiana, this model will serve as a proxy for the active learning, or experimentation, component of adaptive management. The expanded small-scale physical model, which is being designed to very accurately represent properties of the river, will help simulate water, sediment and physical dynamics that may result from restoration and management actions. This will help restoration planners make informed decisions about the most effective ways to restore and sustain Louisiana’s coast.

Adaptive management is important to restoration efforts in the Mississippi River Delta because it is a large, dynamic ecosystem and the long-term impacts of restoration may not be observable right away. Managers must stay informed by monitoring the ecosystem and use that knowledge to inform future restoration actions or decisions, so we can have more efficient and beneficial restoration outcomes.

For more information, read part one and two of this blog series

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The Science of the Spill

April 14, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, BP Oil Disaster, Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), Science

By Alisha Renfro, Coastal Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

The blow out of the Macondo well claimed 11 lives and began the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. It took 87 days to finally cap the well and by then at least 134 million gallons of crude oil had been expelled into the Gulf of Mexico.

With the source of the oil nearly a mile below the surface of the water and at four times the size of the Exxon Valdez, the BP oil disaster presented many new challenges. The experience and response methods used in previous oil spills was often found to be impossible to apply or ineffective. As a result, scientists began scrambling to measure how much oil was leaking from the well, tracking and predicting where it would go and trying to understand what this spill would mean for the people, wildlife and habitat of the Gulf.

While large amounts of scientific data have been collected and published in peer-reviewed journals in the five years since the oil spill, more scientific research is still ongoing. The science related to the spill has been largely funded through a few different sources, including:

The NSF has scientific funding available to address pressing research needs during unanticipated events, like the BP oil spill. The availability and flexibility of this funding source allowed scientists receiving this grant to quickly mobilize and collect important data that may have otherwise been missed in the confusion in the days after the spill when oil was still gushing out of the wellhead.

In May-2010, BP dedicated $500 million over 10 years to independent scientific research to investigate the oil spill impacts on the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf coast states. This initiative funded research projects and research consortia that range from the deep Gulf to the shoreline. Hundreds of peer-reviewed publications have resulted from this initiative and a searchable list of this research can be found here.

NRDA TrusteesThe Oil Pollution Act of 1990 authorizes natural resource trustees – specific federal agencies, affected states and the party responsible, in this case BP – to evaluate the impacts of this oil spill on the natural resources of the region and to implement projects that restore or replace those resources. While the NRDA process related the BP oil spill is touted as the most transparent in its history, the many findings of the ongoing assessment are not available to the public.

The unprecedented size and complexity of the BP oil spill demands well-funded, intensive and wide-ranging scientific study. This research, particularly through NRDA, is crucial for the path forward  towards restoration that will bolster and restore the health of the Gulf ecosystem and the people and wildlife that depend on it.

You can read more of my blog posts here:

Five years later, scientists gather to assess ongoing impact of BP oil spill

New study examines ecological and coastal restoration benefits of oyster reefs

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5 Years Later – Birds Still Need Your Help

April 13, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, Birds, BP Oil Disaster

By Ashley Peters, Communications Associate, Audubon Louisiana

In 2010, waves of oil in the Gulf strangled and crippled the very birds that conservationists had been fighting so hard to protect, like the Brown Pelican and Piping Plover. The outpouring of support was incredible as tens of thousands of people signed up to volunteer with the National Audubon Society, all of them asking, “How can I help?”

Bird surveys provide valuable data to scientists_ Karen Westphal

Bird surveys provide valuable data to scientists. Photo: Karen Westphal

In response to the 2010 Gulf oil disaster, the Audubon Coastal Bird Survey (ACBS) was established as a Gulf-wide citizen science survey of waterbirds and shorebirds across the impact zone and beyond. Surveys help supply scientists with better data to track population trends, and other information such as where birds go and challenges they encounter. Armed with more data, conservationists can more effectively target restoration projects, environmental policies, and other efforts to deliberately provide good outcomes for birds. And ultimately, those outcomes can help to reverse population declines.

At Audubon, volunteers have always been critical to achieving conservation goals on a scale that would not be possible with staff and scientists alone. With so many online resources, it’s easy for citizen scientists to get information about how they can get involved, to connect with other volunteers, and to report their findings online.

As the full extent of the Gulf oil disaster continues to reveal itself, we still need people asking how they can help. The Gulf oil disaster exacerbated habitat loss that Gulf shores were already experiencing, especially in Louisiana. Coastal restoration is a top priority, and ACBS helps us understand how habitat changes affect our avian friends. There are 100 million birds that nest, feed, and travel through the Mississippi River Delta each year and the delta is still an Important Bird Area. Unfortunately, it’s also still in danger due to several ongoing major ecological disasters.

Roseate Spoonbill_Karen Westphal

Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Karen Westphal

There are many other citizen science initiatives such as Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count, as well as bioblitz events, bird banding events, and much more. Please register to help with ACBS if you live near any Gulf shores, but if not, find another way to help where you live. Gulf coast resident birds were not the only ones affected in 2010; many migratory bird species were exposed to toxic chemicals as they traveled through the Gulf that spring and fall. Wherever you live, birds face an increasing number of threats and disturbances.

To get involved in Louisiana, email Louisiana@Audubon.org. To learn more about how you can help outside of Louisiana, visit Audubon.org.

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BP's Sleight of Hand

April 8, 2015 | Posted by lbourg in 5 Years Later, Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Reports, Science, Wildlife

Cat Island 2010 and 2015_NWF photo

This post has been cross-posted from an article originally published on the National Audubon Society’s website

By: Melanie Driscoll, Director of Bird Conservation, Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway, Erik Johnson, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Louisiana

A BP-authored report claiming that the Gulf has recovered is inaccurate and insulting—here’s why.

Nearly five years after the largest accidental marine oil spill in U.S. history, BP is doing its best to convince the public that the 4.9[1] million barrels of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico have done no lasting damage. That’s the message found in The Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration report the company released three weeks ago.

Based on what the report does present, it’s obvious that BP chose to ignore recent research that shows the ongoing impact of the oil spill, particularly on birds (pp 15-17 of report). That BP ignores peer-reviewed science is nothing new—they have been denying culpability and the validity of peer-reviewed, published research since the spill itself. Meanwhile, their own conclusions lack peer-review and they have not released their methodology. Because of this lack of transparency, BP has made claims that are impossible to refute or verify.

One of the government agencies responsible for monitoring the Gulf health following the oil spill—the NOAA Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program—is expected to hold itself to a high standard of independent scientific peer-review as it completes its Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). While we await the NRDA studies to be completed and released, BP has flaunted such professional standards in its allusions to NRDA findings that cannot be verified at this stage. The trustees of NRDA themselves called BP’s recent report “inappropriate as well as premature.”

Along with others in the scientific community, the National Audubon Society rejects BP’s claims. While their report leaves much to criticize, here are its five main flaws:

  • Their conclusions are not credible given lack of peer-review, questionable methodology and premature conclusions.

They claim “search teams likely found 97 percent of large birds and 78 percent of small birds.” These numbers are inconceivable to any researcher or birder who has looked for birds on a beach. It stands to reason that a detection rate of 97 percent as claimed by BP is unlikely, even for living and mobile birds; their estimate seems grossly optimistic compared to detection rates published widely in the scientific literature. In addition, BP compared their estimate of searcher efficiency for carcasses placed on beaches to the searcher efficiency across sandy beach, rocky beach, and marsh habitats. Detection rates are known to vary widely based on factors such as carcass coloration and habitat, and the actual searches in the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred across marsh, mangrove, rocky beach, and sandy beach habitats.  Attacking a single parameter from a complex study, and doing so using an apples-to-oranges comparison, is disingenuous and misleading.

  • The Gulf of Mexico ecosystem has not returned to a pre-oil spill “baseline condition”.

First of all, the oil is not gone. Significant deposits (up to 230,000 barrels) of oil have been discovered in the sediment on the Gulf floor. This oil regularly washes ashore during storms, re-oiling marshes and beaches. In October 2014, researchers discovered a 1,250-square-mile “bathtub ring” of oil on the Gulf floor–equivalent to the size of Rhode Island. Indeed, as the BP report was released a 22,000-pound tar mat was being removed from East Grand Terre Island in Barataria Bay, LA.

BP’s conclusions are incredibly premature. With lagged effects, trophic cascades, food web effects, and repeated re-oiling of the coast, we could be seeing surprises and environmental effects for years to come on birds and on the entire ecosystem.

Erosion is forever. Land and crucial habitats have disappeared. It’s impossible to return to a “baseline” when the land that composed that baseline and is crucial to coastal bird populations has disappeared. Studies show that marsh that was heavily oiled was undercut and eroded back, creating ragged marsh edges that were unoiled or lightly oiled. The scientists have then seen a wave of erosion of these unoiled or lightly oiled marsh, as waves reshape the ragged marsh edge to create a new, smoother edge. Not only has much of the heavily oiled marsh eroded, but marsh that was less damaged has followed.

  • Damage to birds from the BP oil spill is evident and has been well documented, contrary to what BP reports.  

In the 95 days following the oil spill, conservative estimates are that hundreds of thousands to more than a million birds died.

This acute damage does not take into account the molecular, cellular, reproductive, and developmental damage that may accumulate in birds for years to come. That is significant, it is long-term, and it matters.

Birds exposed to oil during their early development may accumulate damage that causes failed reproduction. Additionally, many long-lived species like pelicans, terns, and egrets do not breed until their second, third, or fourth year of life, meaning the young exposed to oil early in their lives hadn’t started breeding in 2011, making BP’s conclusions based on 2011 information premature.

  • More studies are needed to understand the ongoing and long-term effects on bird populations.

In other species, lagged and trophic level effects have resulted in increasing effects from oil being detected over time since the disaster. Very few studies on bird productivity have been published that looked beyond the 2010-2011 nesting season. More studies are needed to draw broad conclusions.

Scientifically, the most reliable way to study productivity is to compare productivity of birds exposed to oil and not exposed to oil within the same season. The only study of which we are aware that has used this reliable methodology is a study of the Seaside Sparrow, which showed reduced nest success for sparrows on oiled sites in 2012 and 2013.

  • BP’s use of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data is flawed and their summaries of other data are incomplete and misleading.

BP misused CBC data to obscure potential impacts. It’s likely they used data from well outside the impacted areas. Particularly, Sandwich Terns and Northern Gannets are not counted by CBC participants 10-100 times more than Piping Plovers in the impacted areas. The numbers they used for Red Knots appear to include the entire rufa subspecies, which mainly winters in the Tierra del Fuego region in southern Argentina and the Maranhão region of northeastern Brazil. It is difficult to tell how CBC data were used, but it is clear from the relative abundance of some species that data from outside the Gulf were included in analyses. Using broader data from other regions could mask any local and regional changes in populations due to the oil spill. Without describing their methods, it is apparent that BP’s report represents a misuse of Audubon’s publicly available data.

BP reported oiling rates from long after the oil well was capped, resulting in oiling rates that appear to be very low: In its report, BP cites data saying “researchers saw no visible oil in 99 percent of the roughly 500,000 live bird observations from May 2010 to March 2011.” A study following the Deepwater Horizon spill showed that 8.6 percent of captured shorebirds showed evidence of oiling, indicating that BP’s observational evidence may have underestimated exposure by as much as an order of magnitude.

BP selected a study that appeared to show no effects on birds to highlight a success that is likely just a lack of use of the oiled region:  In BP’s reference to the Northern Gannet publication, researchers in this paper used light-level geolocators to determine wintering locations of Northern Gannets. Digging into the details of the paper, it is clear that only a small sample of the researcher’s birds wintered in the Gulf of Mexico (8 birds in their study) and that the Gulf birds foraged in areas primarily >100 miles away from the spill site, i.e., well outside of area of the most devastating impacts. Thus it may be no surprise that these few birds did not show elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (harmful chemicals from oil) levels as they were not in the spill zone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s published account of bird deaths following the spill paints a different picture—Northern Gannets were one of the most frequently encountered dead bird after the spill.

BP incorrectly concluded from a published study that researchers did not find evidence that variations in age classes of Brown Pelicans on Louisiana barrier islands were related to the oil spill. However, the paper specifically states “…additional research is required to evaluate potential long-term population trends.” Also, “Care should be taken in interpretation of our result as a lack of effect [of oil] on demography because there are combinations of spill-related reductions in fecundity and age-specific mortality that could result in no changes in age structure.” One scenario that’s easy to imagine is that all age classes were reduced similarly. In short, like the authors state, there are many possible scenarios that could influence their findings.

Despite BP’s claims, we may not know the full impact of the oil spill for decades to come. Even more, we will not achieve lasting, meaningful restoration in the Gulf Coast until BP quits stalling, quits the legal and publicity campaign and actually funds full restoration.

Sign this petition telling BP to stop their delay tactics and fully fund Gulf restoration.

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