Oil Spill Crude Disaster

Apr 24, 2011 1:51 PM by Chris Welty

Scientists Fret Over BP Funds for Gulf Research

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Scientists say it is taking far too long to
dole out millions of dollars in BP funds for badly needed Gulf oil
spill research, and it could be too late to assess the crude's
impact on pelicans, shrimp and other species by the time studies
begin.
The spring nesting and spawning season is a crucial time to get
out and sample the reproduction rates, behavior and abundance of
species, all factors that could be altered by last year's massive
spill. Yet no money has been made available for this year, and it
could take months to determine which projects will be funded.
"It's like a murder scene," said Dana Wetzel, an
ecotoxicologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. "You
have to pick up the evidence now."
BP PLC had pledged $500 million - $50 million a year over 10
years - to help scientists study the spill's impact and forge a
better understanding of how to deal with future spills. The first
$50 million was handed out in May 2010 to four Gulf-based research
institutes and to the National Institutes of Health.
Rita Colwell, a University of Maryland scientist who chairs the
board overseeing the money, said the protocol for distributing the
remaining $450 million would be announced Monday at the National
Press Club Washington. After that, scientists will be allowed to
submit proposals, but it could take months for research to be
chosen.
Michael Carron, a Mississippi marine scientist selected to head
the BP-funded post-spill research project, the Gulf of Mexico
Research Initiative, doubted money would be available before June.
He acknowledged not being able to study the spring spawning in full
bloom would be a problem.
"This will be the first good glimpse of what happened to
larvae, the first class" of species born during and after the
spill, he said.
With the BP funds so slow to get out the door, scientists are
trying to get funding from federal grants and other sources. And
it's possible the BP money will be handed out on an expedited
basis, Carron said.
From the outset, the $500 million has been fraught with problems
and questions over how the money would be distributed and how much
scientists would be influenced by BP. The result has been
paralysis.
It took until last month for BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance,
a nonprofit headed by Gulf Coast governors, to finally agree on how
to spend the rest of the $450 million. Under the agreement, BP
pledged that research would be independent of the oil giant and the
Gulf alliance and that scientists could publish their results
without BP approval.
Still, BP will exert some control. For example, the funds will
be overseen by a BP-hired contractor, and the oil giant has
appointed half of the members on a 20-member board that will decide
what research to do.
BP declined to comment and referred questions to the Gulf
research initiative.
Larry McKinney, the director of the Harte Research Institute for
Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said
the science board overseeing the money was solid and unlikely to be
heavily influenced by BP.
Scientists who take the BP money will have to credit the oil
giant for funding the research, and BP may be able to obtain
patents for inventions derived from the research. McKinney said
those requirements were standard.
The delay in BP funds has rankled scientists. There was a dearth
of scientific investigation to understand the effects of the
massive 1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf's Bay of Campeche, scientists
said, and there are fears the same could happen in the wake of BP's
spill.
"The science was abysmal to start with," George Crozier, the
head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said about the
effect of oil spills in the Gulf. "But, golly, the questions have
become bigger and more important."
And scientists don't have many other places to turn for research
dollars.
While a lot of sampling and data collection is being done by BP
and the federal government in the natural resource damage
assessment, the legal battle over damage to the ecosystem also
known as NRDA, scientists say that work is hardly cutting-edge and
may not pick up the subtlest of changes in reproduction, DNA and
other important factors.
"NRDA is not designed to advance science, it is designed to
establish the damage done," Crozier said. "It is a legal-driven
process."
NRDA also focuses on the commercially important and top species
- not the worms, shorebirds, jellyfish, bait fish and tiny
crustaceans that make up the bottom of the food web.
"There are areas of research we don't have a handle on,"
Wetzel said. "We're in the waiting room. We still don't know
what's happened and we're waiting for someone to step up and say
this is important to find out."

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