Friday, April 15, 2011

Gulf oil spill: Environmental official more optimistic as anniversary approaches |

Gulf oil spill: Environmental official more optimistic as anniversary approaches | "Gulf oil spill: Environmental official more optimistic as anniversary approaches"

GULF SHORES, Alabama -- Almost a year after mobilizing to deal with the biggest oil spill in history, environmental officials looked out over a Baldwin County beach where tourists sunbathed on white sand and pelicans soared overhead.

The worst predictions about the effects of the spill did not happen, Bob Haddad, chief of the Assessment and Restoration Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said standing on the beach of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Officials will be working for a long time, however, to determine what the long-term impact of that Deepwater Horizon spill will be, he said.

"Twelve months ago, I was ramping up to try to put natural resource damage teams across almost 2,000 miles of coastline," Haddad said. "This has been the largest accidental oil spill in the world, not just in our history. Sure, I was pretty pessimistic 12 months ago. In some cases I’m less pessimistic now, more optimistic. I think the shoreline issues now as we work through those we are going to find what those injuries look like."

Haddad and other environmental officials toured the refuge as part of several days of inspections of sites hit by the spill.

During the spill, birds, mammals and marshes were coated in oil. What was not so obvious was the effects that cannot be seen right away, Haddad said.

30,000 turtle eggs moved

At the wildlife refuge in Gulf Shores, 30,000 sea turtle eggs were moved to Atlantic coast beaches. No one will know for years if those turtles will return to Alabama when the time comes to lay their eggs or if a generation of animals will be lost. The effect of the oil on the predators at the top of the food chain also might not be clear for decades.

Haddad said NOAA officials are preparing a report on the environmental impact of the spill to be used by the federal government to seek compensation. He said he did not know when the Natural Resource Damage Assessment would be ready.

"We need to make sure we understand the totality of the injuries before we settle and let anybody off the hook, whether it’s BP or any of the other responsible parties," he said.

Haddad said some data gathered as part of the assessment has not been released to the public because the information could be used in civil or criminal court cases.

Jereme Phillips, manager of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, said officials have been working in the last year to protect and clean the refuge, which includes about five miles of undeveloped beaches.

Berms were built after the April 20 spill to protect the dune system and areas such as Little Lagoon.

Work continues to clean the beaches, but officials are also trying to be sure that the cleaning efforts do not disturb sensitive areas. He said cleaning equipment is not allowed at the edge of the surf line, an area known as the wrack, where birds often feed and small fish and other animals congregate.

Now, they are waiting to see how the wildlife, such as the sea turtles, responds this year. In about a month, the turtles will return to lay eggs on the sand. He said 20 to 30 nests are built on the refuge beaches in an average year.

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