U.S. response to spill frustrates environmentalists

WASHINGTON Thu May 13, 2010 3:58pm EDT

Clean-up crews comb the beach for tar balls washed on shore on Dauphin Island, Alabama May 10, 2010. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Clean-up crews comb the beach for tar balls washed on shore on Dauphin Island, Alabama May 10, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government response to the BP oil spill has frustrated environmental groups and Gulf Coast conservationists, who say they're getting scant information about the disaster's potential ecological effects.

"There's a lot of concern now about the marine impact and we're not getting a truly transparent response from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)," Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network said on Thursday.

Viles acknowledged that this kind of deep-water oil well blowout is unprecedented in U.S. waters, but said it should have been anticipated.

"There was no Plan B after the blowout preventer failed to contain, clean up or even estimate the environmental impact for marine and coastal communities," he said by telephone from New Orleans.

Viles said his group has been concerned since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 that BP has exercised undue control over activities associated with this spill.

The Waterkeeper Alliance, a global environmental organization with members on the Gulf Coast, called for smarter integration of the response to the emergency and better support for coastal communities, along with better maps of oyster beds and fish and shrimp habitats.

NOAA did not immediately respond to a call for comment on Thursday about the environmental groups' concerns.

Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist who responded to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska, said it is likely that the oil now showing up on some Gulf beaches is only a fraction of what is being released from the broken underwater wellhead.

"UNCHARTED WATERS"

This subsurface oil is likely to mix with the deep water and stay in the water column, possibly endangering creatures that live in it or swim through it, before eventually rising to the surface in a plume, said Steiner, who is now affiliated with the environmental group Greenpeace.

He said chemical dispersants that were sprayed on the water's surface will cause the surface oil to break up into small droplets that will become suspended in the water column, possibly contaminating fish that in turn will be eaten by birds and fed to newly hatched chicks.

"We don't have enough damage assessment out there," Steiner said in a telephone interview from the Gulf Coast. "NOAA has really, really dropped the ball here."

NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco and Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, offered few specifics in a briefing on Wednesday when asked about the environmental impact of dispersants.

"The monitoring that we are doing will enable us to get a better handle on what habitats will be affected if they are," Lubchenco said. "Anything that we would say at this point is speculation."

"When it comes to the environment we're in unchartered waters," Jackson said. "Every spill is different."

One environmental fear is that the rust-colored light crude oil spewing from the mile-deep offshore rig at the rate of 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) a day will get enmeshed in the dense tall marsh grasses and reeds that fringe the Gulf Coast.

These reeds help stabilize the wetlands, which shelter wildlife and commercially important species including shrimp and oysters. If the reeds are fouled by oil, they could decline or die, leaving the shoreline even more vulnerable to erosion.

Because coastal marshes provide a buffer against storms in the Gulf of Mexico, slowing them down as they head inland, there would be less natural protection for developed areas in the event of a big hurricane. Hurricane season begins June 1.

(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles in Miami, Editing by Eric Beech)

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