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Scientists need funds to continue spill-related research

28th April 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
The Louisiana Weekly, Contributing Writer

Last summer, biologists and chemists whipped through Gulf waters in rented fishing boats and sloshed around in local marshes with nets and vials, collecting samples to gauge impacts from BP’s spill. Analyzing some of those samples and data is stalled now, however, until BP-the main source for the disaster’s research funds–releases more money, scientists and university leaders say.

BP pledged up to $500 million over a 10-year span through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GRI, in late May of last year, to universities and groups for studies examining the spill’s ecological and health effects. Of that, $40 million in fast-track funds for priority research-looking mainly at oil-and-dispersant movement and interaction-has been awarded so far.

The GRI is expected to announce requests for research proposals soon, with BP funding awards likely to follow this spring and summer. The GRI is managed by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, formed back in 2004 by Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas to tackle environmental and economic issues.

Christopher D’Elia, professor and dean of the LSU School of the Coast and Environment, said “cutting-edge, scientific research is now grinding to a halt as we wait for BP to provide more funding from the GRI. The scientific community can’t continue much of the research it started last summer.”

Last week in New Orleans, Laura Levy, vice president for research at Tulane University, said that Tulane’s faculty, supported by government funding, is addressing spill-related problems, but added “we are concerned about the fact that BP has still not released requests for proposals for the research funds it committed nearly a year ago.”

Last June, BP said requests for scientific, research proposals would be published shortly and that research ideas would be evaluated under certain standards. University administrators said they expect to hear something from GRI again soon and probably this month.

Curtis Thomas, Louisiana-based spokesman for BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said last week “BP is glad to have provided money to Gulf Coast researchers to assess the long-term effects of the spill,” and added “it’s one of the ways BP is keeping its commitment to the people of the Gulf.” But he was unable to provide a timeline for release of more funds, saying that GRI is independent of BP, and said to consult GRI’s website at

According to that site, GRI’s 20-member, research board is preparing a request for proposals for “Program Year 2,” expected to be announced in spring 2011. Program Year 2 refers to the second year after the spill, which starts in late April.

At LSU, D’Elia said that the Obama Administration, dealing with a huge budget deficit, decided last spring that BP should compensate the government for spill research and monitoring. “Much of the required research and monitoring is part of the NRDA process, which is very constraining due to its legal implications,” he said.

D’Elia continued, saying “fortunately, BP through the $500 million, 10-year GRI, did provide an initial $40 million to do research apart from NRDA.” D’Elia said his records show that BP committed $10 million to LSU, of which $5 million is in hand; along with $10 million to the Northern Gulf Institute, a consortium led by Mississippi State University; $10 million to the Florida Institute of Oceanography; $5 million to Alabama universities; and $10 million to the National Institutes of Health.

BP is expected to pay for the NRDA process, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and has already allocated some funds.

In addition, the Obama Administration last June pledged to develop a separate, long-term plan to restore the Gulf. In early October, President Obama signed an order to create a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, led by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and New Orleans native Lisa Jackson. Implementing the Administration’s plans will require sustained funding. Several bills introduced in Congress address the plan for a restoration fund and they require that as much as 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties for the spill be used for the Gulf.

D’Elia said “last summer, the federal government’s first goal was to get the oil well capped, and its second major goal was to clean up as much oil as possible. It also had to collect information for the NRDA process, according to the legal mandates of the OPA.” Understandably, he said, scientists were called upon to serve those purposes more than others.

D’Elia also said “government agencies have been constrained in their research because of legal requirements to use EPA’s standard methods,” which he said serve a useful purpose, but aren’t the avant garde, cutting-edge methods developed and used by university researchers. University research methods can be many times more sensitive in analyzing data than those used by the government, he said, and added that it can take years before they are adopted as standards.

When asked for a reaction, EPA spokeswoman Mollie Lemon in Washington, DC, cited a November science article from EPA’s Office of Research and Development saying that, after the spill, “scientists from more than a dozen federal agencies and private and academic communities were called to bring the best science, expertise and assets to bear on an unprecedented situation.” As teams worked to respond to the disaster, “scientists were denied the luxury of lengthy deliberation,” EPA researchers said in that article. They said EPA upheld its commitment to scientific integrity and that science must be strong to support decision-making.

LSU has been involved with state and federal agencies dealing with the spill since its start, D’Elia said. “Last May, I mentioned to state Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham that I was concerned about using dispersants at a depth of 5,000 feet, saying I didn’t believe it had ever been done.” Barham requested that D’Elia do a quick, straw poll of LSU School of the Coast and Environment faculty.

“Shortly thereafter, EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson came down to talk with a larger group of LSU faculty to get advice on dispersant use,” D’Elia said. “It was my understanding that she had seen the results of the poll and wanted to follow up. She knew that LSU faculty had extensive experience in dealing with the oil industry.”

Since then, LSU has committed most of the $5 million received in BP funds to 30 research projects, LSU spokeswoman Ashley Berthelot said last week. In addition, LSU has at least eight, National Science Foundation rapid response grants, worth over $500,000, for spill research. As of 2010’s end, LSU had been given over $8 million in spill-related research funds, including BP’s $5 million.

At the University of New Orleans, Matthew Tarr, professor of analytical chemistry and environmental studies, said last May, he and student assistants took a fishing boat from Venice and traveled 10 miles below South Pass, where they collected oil. “We’ve tested the photochemical decomposition of oil from sunlight, how different components react, how rapid those transitions are and changes in toxicity by compounds,” he said. “We want to know what happens to oil to understand how future spills should be handled, how oil affects aquatic organisms and people, and what are the potential risks of spilled oil to people and ecosystems.”

Tarr pulled together available resources for his research. “I began my Gulf spill work last spring with money remaining from a National Science Foundation grant from before the spill. Subsequently, I got some funding from BP via the University of Southern Mississippi’s Northern Gulf Institute, as part of a team at the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies, or PIES at UNO.”

Biologists at the Cocodrie seminar said they’d like to have money now to get into marshes and water to study reproduction during the ecosystem’s busy springtime.

Meanwhile, UNO vice chancellor Whittenburg said “UNO has received six grants, totaling nearly $500,000 for research related to the spill.

Funding for UNO’s spill projects has been used to assess impacts on juvenile fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters, to monitor natural resources in the Pontchartrain Basin, to provide wetland data to support decision-making, to analyze services related to the spill response and to understand community impacts of the spill.

Tulane has received $2.1 million in funding from federal, state and private sources to conduct spill-related research, Tulane spokesman Michael Strecker said.

“Projects at Tulane range from studying the impact of oil and dispersants on the blue crab population to the washability of sand beaches and marshlands fouled by oil to the mental health impacts of the disaster,” Strecker said.

Meanwhile, some of the scientists involved in spill research have been asked to sign non-disclosure forms by government agencies and companies.

When asked if any LSU faculty had signed such forms, D’Elia said “I think we have a few who have signed non-disclosure forms with BP and a few with NOAA, but I can’t give you a firm number.

D’Elia added “most scientists want to have full freedom to use their data any way they see fit.”

In Baton Rouge, Andrea Taylor Recher, spokeswoman for Governor Bobby Jindal’s Office of Coastal Activities, said “the state is very committed to scientific research related to our coast and the oil spill. Through the NRDA process and many other actions, hundreds of millions of dollars in studies and assessments are underway to determine the impact of the spill on our natural resources. We are also working with other Gulf states through the Gulf Research Initiative to provide additional research funding to our colleges and universities in the near term.”

Before the BP disaster occurred, however, Jindal had slashed the state’s oil-spill research budget.

This story originally published in the April 18, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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