'Quagmire Of Bureaucracy' Stifles Gulf Spill Research

April 20, 2011

Christopher Joyce

John Moore
Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, inspects oil-covered reeds while visiting the disaster site on May 20, 2010 south of Venice, Louisiana. A year after the spill, BP has yet to distribute $450 million dollars to scientists studying the disaster.

Although images of dead birds and blackened marshes in the Gulf of Mexico are gone, many scientists say it's too early to declare a recovery. They suspect there could be hidden damage to the Gulf's marine life and marshes. And some of these scientists say research on the effects of the spill has been delayed or kept secret.

Among them is Michael Crosby, a senior scientist at Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory. The Gulf of Mexico is his baby. He was thrilled last year when BP promised to give scientists $500 million to research how the spill will affect marine life in the Gulf.

Eleven months later, he's still waiting to see the money.

"In a word," says Crosby, "it's stalled."

Last year, BP did give $50 million to several research groups in the Gulf. "But the rest of the money has been just caught up in a quagmire of bureaucracy, politics, turf issues," he says. "Why the hell isn't that money out there? We have lost a year, we have literally lost a year. That's a huge gap."

The first year after the spill was the best chance to track the oil and its effect on fish, shellfish, birds, and marshes — the whole complex web of marine life. Crosby says more scientists need to be out in the Gulf right now.

"Listen to those men and women who work on the water," Crosby says. "They are seeing dazed crabs now that don't survive the transport, the massive miscarriages, fetuses, dead baby dolphins. Well, there's no hard-core data to make that link, and 10 years from now will they ever come back? Well, who knows?"

A Lengthy Process

Last year, BP and Gulf states set about appointing a board of scientists – called the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Research Board — to review research proposals and hand out the remaining $450 million. Crosby and other scientists believe the process got bogged down by politicians and officials from Gulf states trying to influence the membership of the board and allocation of the money.

Board director and biologist Rita Colwell told NPR that it wasn't politics setting the timetable for the process, but a desire to get the best scientists on the board.

Bill Walker, a resources manager for the state of Mississippi, says his governor did object when BP first appointed a 10-member board that didn't have what he felt was sufficient representation from Gulf scientific institutions. Subsequently, BP told the five Gulf states that each could appoint two scientists to raise the board membership to 20. But Walker says he doesn't think that was a major delay.

In any case, BP and Gulf states didn't sign a deal on the process for giving out the money until last month — 10 months after BP announced it would create the research fund. The next step is to ask scientists to submit research proposals. Reviewing those could take months.

There is some money flowing to Gulf research. In addition to the $50 million BP has distributed to scientists, the federal government's National Science Foundation has also paid for Gulf expeditions. But Lisa Suatoni, a marine biologist with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, says most of that work was about oil — not marine life.

"What happened to the oil, what happened to the dispersants, what happened to the gases," she says, is what's been examined so far. "But the biologists and the ecologists haven't even laid out their puzzle pieces on the table yet, so there's no way of knowing what the environmental harm was. The answers are slipping through our fingers. It is a very depressing subplot to the oil spill."

Keeping Data Secret

There's one other big source of money for studying the health of the Gulf: the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the scientists who take NOAA money can't openly discuss or publish their conclusions yet. That's because the government is preparing legal action against BP under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process.

Christopher D'Elia, a Gulf researcher at Louisiana State University, says the NRDA clamps a lid of secrecy on research that many scientists find stifling.

"It may end up in court," he says. "You just can't publish your data, you don't get involved in the normal kind of scientific discourse we had, so it's a more constraining process. I don't think it works. I think it's a nightmare. I think whole thing, it just grinds everything to a halt."

But NOAA officials point out that without NRDA, evidence against BP and its drilling partners could be compromised if published before a trial. They add that the data they pay scientists to gather is published on NOAA's website; it's the scientists' "interpretation" of that data that is secret.

Eventually, that information will all be released and the world will know just what happened to the Gulf. But Don Bosch, a biologist with the University of Maryland who sat on the official oil spill investigative commission, says the damage from the spill is only a small part of what ails the Gulf. "Even in the worst case," he says, "the effects of this spill wouldn't be as devastating as the tremendous loss of coastal wetlands, you know, the large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and all of those kinds of things."

Those assaults on the Gulf started long ago, and are likely to continue long after the BP oil spill is just a statistic. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.