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Nancy Smith

Despite Study, BP Disputes 800,000 Bird Deaths in Gulf Disaster

June 6, 2014 - 6:00pm

Four years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, BP still hasn't finished paying for the damage it did to the Gulf region ecosystem.

The issue at this moment is dead birds.

How many birds and how much money should be paid depends on who you ask. And that's the crux of the delay.

Responders searched an area of nearly 40,000 square miles during and after the 2010 spill and they counted fewer than 3,000 dead birds. But a study to be released this summer bythe Marine Ecology Progress Seriesindicates that the true toll may be far higher: on an order as high as 800,000. It's a number that far exceeds any previous estimate.

This new estimate for bird deaths in the Gulf is unprecedented for an oil disaster. Consider that the estimate of dead birds following the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was around 300,000.

Part of the reason they discovered so few carcasses is because the oceanographic currents for the most part moved them away, Jeffrey Short, a marine chemist and a co-author of the study, told The New York Times. He said they simply never made it from the ocean floor to the shoreline.

Short and two colleagues, J. Christopher Haney and Harold J. Geiger, conducted the studies for a pair of law firms representing clients with environmental impact claims against BP.

Short's credentials are impeccable. He spent most of his 31-year career with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studying the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska; thus he was mired in resulting lawsuits. Christopher Haney is the chief scientist for Defenders of Wildlife, a group involved in lawsuits against BP.

Jordan Karubian, a bird ecologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, confirmed what he told the New York Times -- that he finds the estimates of 600,000 to 800,000 dead birds reasonable. My sense is that these researchers were careful to be conservative, he said.

The findings come at a time when BP isrefusing to pay $147 million to support ongoing scientific NRDA studies,science critical to fully understanding the effects of the oil disaster on the Gulfs natural resources.

The science is part of a series of ongoing studies under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) that BP previously funded. The fact that they are refusing to pay for it at a time when some NRDA studies are under way, is telling, claims the Ocean Conservancy's conservation biologist Alexis Baldera.

She told Sunshine State News it isimperative that BP fund ongoing and future NRDA studies. "They have to do it," Baldera said. "They are required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. These studies are designed to assess the extent of injury to natural resources and the restoration needed to compensate for that injury."

Though trustee agencies carry out NRDA studies, the responsible party -- in this case BP -- is required to pay for them.

Officials at BP, however, dispute the new study's findings.

"The results of the models used in this paper are based on general assumptions by the authors," a press release at said. "However, wildlife is managed on behalf of the public by federal and state natural resource trustees who are conducting the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. Data collected through the cooperative NRDA process show that many of the authors' assumptions are not valid for the Deepwater Horizon accident. If the authors ran their models with numbers specific to the Deepwater Horizon accident, their estimates would be substantially lower."

In the statement, BP said the authors of the study assumed 1 percent of birds that died in the Gulf washed ashore, but BP said field studies by the NRDA indicated 70 percent washed ashore.

Jason Ryan, a spokesman for BP America, has questioned the objectivity of the researchers. He also questioned their methodology, because he said it is not supported by NRDA data.

The problem is, the NRDA field studies are still under wraps. BP is allowed to keep them that way for the time being because of pending litigation. Therefore, no one can make a comparison. Meanwhile, the Marine Ecology Progress Series, with prepublication copies available for viewing, is an open book.

Melanie Driscoll, an ornithologist with the Audubon Society in Baton Rouge, La., told the New York Times the study has tremendous value for restoration planning. But she called 800,000 dead birds a really big number, and its still too small.Still not counted, she said, are whole categories such as marsh birds.

Baldera made it clear that the Ocean Conservancy isn't suing BP. It simply wants the new study to raise awareness of the plight of the region and BP's need to live up to its obligation to pay for needed science.

She quantified the Conservancy's menu of needs for the region, and said the organization "has a lot of work to do with the situation left us after the spill, but we will be ready to go" when the BP money is available. Here is her list:

-- A high-resolution aerial survey of marine wildlife and marine bird abundance in the Gulf. Cost: $800,000

-- To inventory and integrate existing offshore habitat maps. Cost: $250,000

-- Mapping of the Gulf of Mexico sea floor. Cost: Depends on the gaps discovered in the above inventory; for context, a West Florida mapping project was proposed for $11 million over six years

-- Improved fishery assessments through fish research and fish habitat characterization. Cost: Ballpark, $50 million over six years

-- Expand marine mammal stranding rescue and response capabilities. Cost: $10 million

-- Reef fish barotrauma research and science-based best release practices. Cost: $13.3 million over five years

-- Expand the sea turtle stranding and salvage network capabilities. Cost: $10 million

-- Reduction in bluefish tuna bycatch through gear and vessel transition. Cost: $5 million for 10 vessels

-- Transition to electronic submission and processing of recretional angler data. Cost: $5 million over five years

-- Improve design/use of turtle excluder devices in shrimp fleet. Cost: $500,000 over five years.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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