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 is stalled, 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 May of last year to universities and groups for independent research on 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 for more of the BP money soon, with awards likely to follow this spring and summer. The GRI is managed by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, formed in 2004 by Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas to tackle environmental and economic issues.
Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of Louisiana State University's 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." He spoke at an early April symposium on the spill, sponsored by the the University of Rhode Island's Metcalf Institute and held at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium or LUMCON in Cocodrie, La.
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.
Scott Whittenburg, vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate School at University of New Orleans, said last week "we're awaiting the release, expected within two weeks, of the request for proposals from BP," which, he said, will provide guidelines as to how the rest of the $500 million that BP pledged to Gulf universities and researchers will be allocated.
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. Thomas said to consult GRI's website at gomri.org.
According to that site, GRI's 20-member, research board is preparing a request for proposals for "Program Year 2," expected to be announced this spring. Year 2 refers to the second year after the spill, which starts in late April. The site says "proposals will be peer-reviewed and research projects will be selected by the research board. Research contracts for Program Year 2 are expected to be in place by late summer 2011."
GRI funds are separate from Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA process funds.
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, ten-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. Under OPA, resource damage assessments and restoration plans are being developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior and the Gulf states as trustees. Natural resources are to be returned to pre-spill conditions through an NRDA process that can take several years. Scientists involved in the NRDA have collected data in the Gulf, and restoration ideas are being solicited.
In addition, the Obama administration is engaged in 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% of Clean Water Act penalties for the spill be used in 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 practices 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, D.C., 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 responded 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 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.
"About 14 or 15 faculty members responded in the short time allotted," D'Elia said. "About half thought it was a good idea, and the other half advised caution." Chemists had fewer reservations than biologists. Barham passed the survey's results on to the Unified Command for the Deepwater Explosion.
"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 been given at least eight, National Science Foundation rapid response grants, worth over $500,000, for spill research. As of 2010's end, LSU had received 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 "based on a workshop I attended at Dillard University last October, along with another meeting in the fall, it sounded as if BP would put out a request for research proposals in early December, with a Feb. 1 deadline and funding by June 1, 2011. Most of us were expecting it to be a competitive grant program. However, since then I haven't heard anything about a new RFP from BP."
Last May, he and student assistants took a fishing boat from Venice, La., 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.
Tarr's project has progressed to the point that "we're wrapping up some additional experiments and getting ready to submit findings soon to be published in a scientific journal." Tarr refrigerated the oil he collected in the Gulf. "But for ecosystem studies, where people need to get out and look at how organisms are impacted, it's all very time sensitive," he said.
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.
At UNO, vice chancellor Whittenburg said the university has received six grants, totaling nearly $500,000 for research related to the spill. "Two of the grants are from the National Science Foundation, one from the Dept. of Homeland Security, one from a private, local company -- facilitating NOAA's efforts to obtain data on fish -- and two are indirectly funded from the initial round of BP funding for Gulf Coast universities," he said.
Whittenburg continued, saying "the NSF provided the initial funding for our faculty through its Rapid Response Research program, which helped to get our researchers into the Gulf and wetlands within several weeks of the well rupturing."
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 the spill's impacts on communities.
Tulane has received $2.1 million in funding from federal, state and private sources to conduct spill related research, Tulane spokesman Michael Strecker said. Funding sources include the NSF, NOAA, the La. Department of Social Services, the Office of Naval Research or ONR, OXFAM America and Catholic Charities of New Orleans. Through Catholic Charities, Tulane received money indirectly from BP for mental health research, he 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 nondisclosure 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. In those cases, their role is typically to collect the data for use by NOAA and BP, not to interpret it. NOAA and BP do their own, separate interpretations of the same data for the purposes of NRDA."
D'Elia added "most scientists want to have full freedom to use their data any way they see fit."
At UNO, Tarr said "I haven't been asked to sign any forms with BP or government agencies saying that I won't disclose research information. And in the Dillard workshop in October, BP representatives said they wanted scientific research to go into peer review as rapidly as possible."
LSU, Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and LUMCON formed a consortium to compete for spill funding last summer and ratified their agreement in early April, D'Elia said. "We talk regularly, meet as often as possible, and are developing joint proposals," he said.
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 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 article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the April 18, 2011 edition.