Returning to the scene of the grime

Scientists chase evidence of gulf oil spill to measure its cost

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By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / November 21, 2010

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EAST GRAND TERRE ISLAND, La. — At the end of an oil-stained sandy spit, four researchers cautiously approached a pair of black and white birds with comically long orange beaks.

The oil had smeared one American oystercatcher’s leg the color of rust, and scientist Shiloh Schulte inched closer for a better look. The birds began nervously hopping and, soon, were gone. The weary researchers piled back into their small boat to give chase again.

“This is not easy,’’ said a tense Schulte, of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Plymouth.

Seven months after the devastating BP oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico resembles the nation’s largest — and most complex — crime scene. Hundreds of government-hired researchers, including Schulte’s crew, are searching thousands of square miles to document how the environment — including birds, turtles, fish, mudflats, and corals was harmed by the United States’ worst oil spill. The evidence they uncover will be used by the government in legal negotiations to force BP and others found responsible to pay what could be billions of dollars to restore the Gulf. The process could take years.

Putting a price on nature has always been difficult. But in the vast Gulf the challenges are extraordinary. Its creatures were poorly catalogued before the spill, many of the victims are maddeningly elusive, and the use of underwater dispersants to break down the oil has had an unknown effect on marine life.

Schulte heads a shorebird assessment group that, at its height in September, had 36 teams of researchers searching for oiled birds from Florida to Texas; the remaining members are expected to stay through the end of the migratory season late this month.

The Oil Pollution Act, borne out of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, requires federal and state agencies to measure damages to natural resources — from fish to marshes — as well as the cost to the public from losing the use of those resources. Ultimately, the goal is to return the environment to pre-spill conditions and compensate the public for the damages. All claims must be legally defensible, because the matter can wind up in court if negotiations fail.

More than 4,000 oiled birds, among other wildlife, have been collected since the April 20 disaster. More than half were dead; those alive are being rehabilitated and released. There are also thousands of other birds being collected, dead and alive, with no visible signs of oil, and scientists are studying whether those that died did so because of the spill or from natural causes.

Scientists know they are seeing a tiny fraction of the damage; most of the harm is believed to have been done offshore and deep in the ocean.

“You can see how hard this is . . . if you can’t quantify the damages, how can the economists?’’ said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program, who is not involved in documenting the spill’s effects.

Economists have developed detailed strategies to compensate for the lack of precision and have devised a way to tally the number of harmed birds. They consider, for example, the chances that a bird that dies at sea will wash up on a beach, and the chances of someone finding it. They even take into account how long the bird carcass will last in nature, according to Peter Tuttle, an ecologist overseeing the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gulf natural resource damage assessment. Ultimately economists use multiplier formulas to arrive at a final number.

The entire process is far from perfect — and subject to fraught debate — but it is a critical tool, Tuttle says.

The next challenge is assigning a dollar value to the environmental damage. It’s relatively simple to calculate the cost of lost fishing days from closed shrimp grounds, or empty hotel rooms from tourists scared off by the threat of oil, but the price of a dead pelican or a soiled marsh is another matter entirely.

So instead of coming up with exact amounts for injured or dead animal, officials focus on the cost of restoring habitat or making other improvements to allow, for example, more birds to survive in the future — making up for the number believed lost, said Bob Haddad, chief of the Assessment and Restoration Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is overseeing the Gulf damage assessment.

That’s because simply putting a cost to a dead bird may not get at the complicated benefit it provides to an ecosystem, such as aiding biodiversity and playing a part in the food chain.

And restoration doesn’t mean simply re-creating habitat where it was destroyed. It could be creating it somewhere else.

“Historically, [for birds] they have created nesting areas,’’ Haddad said, and raising their chances of survival “might be as simple as predator control.’’

In Rhode Island, for example, the company deemed responsible for a devastating 1996 oil spill had to mark 1.24 million female lobsters with a warning to lobstermen that they were illegal to be caught and then release them back into the sea. Those lobsters were expected to produce 23 billion eggs that would yield the 9 million lobsters lost in the spill.

For now, Schutle’s team, hired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is on the Gulf front line.

One recent morning, Schutle set off by boat from Grand Isle, La., to chase oystercatchers. He is using the easy-to-spot species as a barometer of how other shorebirds may handle the longer-term effects of oil.

Here is the rub: There are believed to be only about 200 resident oystercatchers in coastal Louisiana. Not only must Schulte find them, he is attempting to outfit oiled ones with radio transmitters to track their health over time. It is a job, he says with a wry smile, that takes patience.

And it requires exacting methods. BP’s representatives are allowed to accompany Schutle — and any research team looking for damage as part of the legal case. Every night the researchers’ logbooks are signed off by everyone on the boat, scanned into a computer, burned to a CD, and given to all parties.

“Everything is potentially evidence,’’ said Schulte.

BP officials say the damage assessment was going well.

“To date, the process has been cooperative and collaborative. Our working relationship . . . has been respectful and professional and clearly in the interest of sharing data and scientific knowledge advancement,’’ said Robin Bullock, BP’s Natural Resources Damage Assessment Director in a statement.

Within 20 minutes of leaving Grand Isle, Schulte’s team spotted an oystercatcher pair on a rock jetty the team had radio-tagged the night before. The birds flew off, skittish.

Next was East Grand Terre Island, where another radio-tagged pair dug for oysters in the sand against a backdrop of orange-clad oil cleanup workers. No one is allowed on the island without government permission, and a group of workers in a jeep drove up to check on the visitors but soon recognized Schulte and left.

One oiled oystercatcher — dubbed “steaksauce’’ for his A-1 radiotag identification — was missing. Back on the boat, Manomet technician Laura Koloski put on a pair of green headphones and held out an antenna trying to pick up the bird’s signal as the vessel raced across the water.

After half an hour, the boat slowed and Schulte took over, eventually standing on the boat’s roof with the antenna. “We got nothing,’’ he said shaking his head after climbing back down.

Around 3:30 p.m., the team landed briefly at Queen Bess Island, which early on was one of the most oiled of the barrier islands. No oystercatchers. But a secretive marsh bird, a clapper rail, stalked into view, venturing close to the researchers to pick tiny dead fish out of two small pools of water with brownish bubbles on top.

Schulte paused on shore, looking at the bird and then the water. Did the tiny fish die from the oil? Or something natural? Will the rail be injured by eating the dead fish? Was the team looking at major oil damage?

Schulte sighed.

“This gets at the complexity of identifying damage and potential damage from the spill,’’ he said. “You can’t assume anything.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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