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Oil spill commission calls for stronger science role

oil spill burning.jpg

In its final report, which was released today, the presidential commission investigating the Gulf Oil Spill called for scientists to play a more important role in the federal government’s decisions about where to allow offshore oil production and also in how the government responds to spills. At a press conference in Washington, DC, Bob Graham, a co-chair of the commission said “Science has not been given a sufficient seat at the table. Actually, I think that’s a considerable understatement. It has been virtually shut out.”

The commission asked Congress to supply more funding for scientific and environmental studies and to involve science agencies more formally in decisions about which areas should be opened to exploration. Specifically, the commission urged Congress to change the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration a formal role in assessing plans to lease offshore areas. The commission criticized the March decision by the Obama administration to expand areas available for exploration without consulting NOAA.

The commission also called for:

*More money for research in how to respond to oil spills.

*More research on dispersants, including their long-term effects on the environment.

*Faster access to oil spill sites by scientists so they can start independent studies.

*Plans by the Environmental Protection Agency to address human health impacts from large spills.

*Restoration efforts that are well funded and based on scientific research.

Relating to that last point, the commission requested that 80 percent of the penalties collected for violating the Clean Water Act should go to restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico

Looking ahead, the commission warned about exploration efforts off the coast of Alaska, particularly in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These areas are biologically rich but there is relatively little scientific information about most of the species living there. And a spill in those regions would stretch the resources of the Coast Guard, which currently only has one operational ice breaker—a gap that has hampered scientific studies in the Arctic and Antarctic. The commission advised Congress to provide the Coast Guard with more resources and urged the government to carry out a comprehensive research program on oil spills in the Arctic.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard


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    Chris Pincetich, Ph.D. said:

    Sea turtle advocates agree that mistakes made by BP, Transocean, and Halliburton combined with flawed government oversight of the oil and gas industry triggered the worst oil spill in U.S. history – and the most devastating environmental disaster for endangered sea turtles and other marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

    “Rescue of sea turtles and protected swimways through the maze of oil rigs must be prioritized in oil and gas regulations,” said Dr. Chris Pincetich, marine biologist at Sea Turtle Restoration Project, the environmental organization that forced BP to stop burning turtles during the oil spill clean-up. “Until now sea turtles have been an afterthought to oil drilling and spilling, but hundreds of deaths and the poisoning of a generation of sea turtles cannot be ignored.”

    The BP oil spill led to hundreds of endangered sea turtle deaths and oiled waters and beaches where loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, green turtles and even leatherbacks nest. The Sea Turtle Restoration Project is advocating for the following changes to oil industry regulations for oil spill prevention and response:

    Sea Turtle Protection from Oil and Gas:

    • Avoidance of sea turtle breeding, foraging and migration habitat for any new or renewed oil drilling platforms. • Establishment of protected swimways through the Gulf of Mexico where new oil and gas development is prohibited and existing operations phased out.

    Oil Spill Response for Sea Turtles:

    • Independent observers on all oil spill response vessels to record wildlife sightings; • Sea turtle rescuers on all cleanup vessel teams; • Increase the number of qualified wildlife rescue teams on-call; • Establish a volunteer protocol for wildlife rescue assistance. • Maintaining an effective level of search effort for sea turtles and wildlife; • Endangered species prioritized for rescue and rehabilitation; • Chemical dispersants and “controlled burns” banned where endangered species are present.

    Oil Spill Restoration:

    • Funds set aside specifically for restoration of sea turtle nesting beaches and nearshore habitat. • Full cleanup of nesting beaches, oil free to a depth of 30 inches.

    “The oil and gas industry must reform itself to show concern for the sea turtles and other wildlife of the marine environment where they drill,” said Carole Allen, STRP Gulf Office Director.

    “On-water rescue of sea turtles was a bottle-neck. In the future, boat teams with fishermen and biologists should be deployed quickly to target endangered species rescue,” says Dr. Chris Pincetich.

    Sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico are threatened by the poisoning and habitat degradation brought on by the BP oil spill and continued offshore oil and gas development. Fisheries such as the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fleet have undergone major modifications in gear and management in recent years to minimize deadly interactions with sea turtles, yet, the offshore oil and gas industry have not made any systematic changes to reduce their impacts to the Gulf’s sea turtles and marine life.

    The offshore oil and gas industry have yet to make any systematic changes to reduce their impacts to the Gulf’s sea turtles and marine life.

    Background: During the BP spill, cleanup vessels performing “controlled burns” were ignoring endangered sea turtles for over two months before sea turtle protection groups including Sea Turtle Restoration Project organized a legal challenge to save them. As a result of a lawsuit, BP halted burning of the oil until independent, trained wildlife observer and rescue teams were placed on the “controlled burn” task force vessels.

    The Sea Turtle Restoration Project also called for reduced fishing pressure to allow ecosystem recovery, continued cleanup by BP, a halt to sand dredging to build berms to block oil, an accurate calculation of the total number of sea turtles estimated as killed in the spill, impacts of submerged oil be assessed, sea turtle stranding and recovery network improvements, and complete transparency of all findings related to the toxicity of gulf seafood, contamination of the environment, and the health of sea turtles in a report released last year.

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