By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A12
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to distance itself from BP in handling the Gulf of Mexico oil spill -- with one notable exception: When it comes to assessing how badly the spill has harmed the gulf, the two sides are working hand in hand.
Their shared goal? To calculate the incalculable: how much it will cost to restore the gulf to its pre-spill state.
But this close collaboration between federal and state authorities and BP -- which is routine procedure under a legal process known as the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) -- has begun to spark concerns among lawmakers and some environmentalists.
"I want this to be independent, for the credibility of the information," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who as chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife will hold hearings this month on the issue.
The collaborative approach, established under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, marks a sharp departure from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, where the federal government kept the oil company at arm's length. Exxon hired its own boats and experts, who followed state and federal officials at a distance, replicating the tests they believed were being done so they could provide a rival analysis.
Stan Senner, who served as Alaska's restoration program manager after the Valdez spill and now directs conservation science for the Ocean Conservancy, said the current collaboration will likely stop as soon as federal and state officials push for a comprehensive overview of how the accident transformed the gulf.
"I would predict in the end that the relationship will break down, and the government and BP will go their separate ways," Senner said, adding that oil companies tend to focus on a spill's short-term impact.
For the moment, though, BP's representatives weigh in on decision-making in every key aspect, from shoreline surveys to designing scientific studies.
BP spokeswoman Anne Kolton wrote in an e-mail that the company is working with state and federal officials "conducting joint sampling to gather information about the condition of the environment before the spill and to establish the environmental impacts of the spill and extent of restoration that is required."
In most cases, BP is represented by employees of Entrix, an environmental consulting firm it contacted within hours of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Entrix is one of two major U.S. consulting firms that specialize in assessing an oil spill's impact. BP provides the boats used to conduct surveys and even the snacks consumed on board; it funds the scientific studies that have been launched by government agencies; and eventually, the company will have to pay for the time of every government official and contractor involved. At the moment, roughly 100 Entrix employees are working alongside more than 250 officials and contractors from state and federal agencies.
To some extent, including BP in the process represents a pragmatic calculation: Federal officials say it helps ensure that the oil company will pay for both the evaluation and the massive task of restoring the region to health. NRDA's goal is to get the responsible party to pay for restoration, and that's more likely to happen if BP officials agree on the extent of the environmental harm the government says the company has wrought.
"If they pay the bills, they're welcome at the table," said Peter Tuttle, an environmental contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is coordinating NRDA activities among Interior Department bureaus. "They do have a role, they do have a place."
Tony Penn, deputy chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's assessment and restoration division, emphasized that this collaboration does not mean the oil company is steering the investigation.
"That doesn't give BP or Entrix the right to shape the course of our assessment or the decisions that are ultimately the government's responsibility," Penn said in an interview.
The unprecedented assessment seeks to answer questions that will ultimately determine how much BP pays for restoration: How degraded were the region's marshes before the oil hit? Which species of birds and marine mammals were thriving before the accident, and which were struggling? How are they doing now, and how will they fare decades from now? The fact that oil has continued to spew from the well for 2 1/2 months only complicates the task. Only one answer is certain: The scientific investigation will take years to complete.
"I don't think we will fully understand the impact of the spill for decades," Tuttle said, adding that state and federal authorities will have to make their "best guess" about the extent of damage to reach a fair settlement with BP. "We're really motivated to get restoration going as soon as possible. There is an incentive to work toward settlement here -- certainly litigation isn't in anyone's best interest."
Dozens of teams are fanning out across the gulf, surveying beaches, sampling everything from water to sediment to tissues from mussels and fish. Each group includes at least one federal official, one state official and one representative from Entrix.
For the most part, the collaboration is working smoothly: In late May, Barry Stuedemann, an Entrix senior consultant and wetlands specialist, and one of his colleagues, Winston Rutherford, set out on an air boat off Grand Isle, La., with officials from NOAA, Fish and Wildlife and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to survey the marshes.
The team stopped at regular intervals to examine everything from what sort of oil was floating in the water to how many birds were flying overhead and whether small snails were thriving on vegetation. At every stop, each team representative signed off on the data entered on the official assessment sheet so no one could contest it later.
"Eventually you're building up a line of evidence," explained Troy Baker, regional resource coordinator at NOAA's assessment and restoration division in Baton Rouge, adding that if they later revisit the area and find "you have a lot of dead birds and have a lot of stranded marine mammals, you're starting to build a picture of the overall threat."
Sherry Krest, a Fish and Wildlife environmental contaminant specialist based in Annapolis who joined in the Grand Isle expedition, said "there's an art and a science" to conducting an NDRA, and that "the negotiation is more of an art."
In the end, Cardin said, he will be watching to make sure the Obama administration doesn't make too many concessions for the sake of getting a speedy financial settlement.
"The challenge is whether the federal agencies are up to evaluating the environmental damage," he said, "and whether we will have to patience to see this through, and get the full results before we close the books on this."