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Making Waves: Episode 91 (Febuary 9, 2012)

You're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch.

When there’s a large oil spill along our coast, it’s a big deal. Plants, birds, and wildlife are injured or killed ... water and land is polluted … beaches are closed, fishing and boating is halted.

So who's in charge of cleaning up the mess in the aftermath of a spill? How do we figure out the damage caused by the spill? How do we make a claim against the party responsible for the spill? And how to do we restore the area back to health?

These are tough questions.  And it was for just these types of complex issues that the Oil Pollution Act was created in 1990 a year after the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.  There have been many, many spills since then ... and one of the bigger ones is our focus today. It happened back in 2007 when a container ship called the Cosco Busan struck a tower of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Oakland Bay bridge and released 53,000 gallons of oil into the Bay.

After years of intensive studies to figure out the damages to plants, animals, people, and land in the Bay, last Fall a $44.4 million dollar legal settlement was reached with the companies responsible for the spill. The bulk of this -- $32.3 million -- is now going towards restoring natural resources injured by spilled oil and to improve Bay Area recreational opportunities affected by the spill.

Today, we’re going to talk about how this came to be. While we’re focusing on this one spill, you’ll get a good idea of how we deal as a nation with big spills wherever and whenever they occur along our coasts.

We're joined on the phone by Greg Baker and Natalie Cosentino-Manning. Greg is regional resource coordinator with NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. Natalie is restoration program manager for the Southwest Region with NOAA's Fisheries Restoration Center. While they both work on the West Coast, I caught up with them at a conference they were attending in New Orleans where they were working on issues related to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Greg's up first. He began by explaining that when a spill happens, there's of course the cleanup part, but there's also the part about figuring out the damages caused by the oil. That's where natural resource trustees come in. Who are these people? They're men and women who work at protecting natural resources every day who join together as trustees at times of crisis when big spills happen – they come from states and tribes affected by the spill and from federal agencies like NOAA, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior.

[Greg Baker] "When a spill happens, there's a cleanup aspect to it, and then there's this other aspect of damages. And shouldn't the responsible party have to do more than just clean it up? Shouldn't they have to fix the losses that occurred as a result of the spill? And that's the role of the natural resource trustees -- simply to advocate for the fish and the birds and the things that, on their own, really can't file a claim against the company that caused the problem."

Trustees are charged with figuring out the damage done when big spills happen. This process – natural resource damage assessment- may take years of detailed scientific study.

But let's take a step back to the time right after the spill. The first thing that happens is that all of the people who are designated as trustees gather together as quickly as possible. Then they jump into action: first, they get a download of all the known details about the spill from the on-scene incident command -- the first responders. At this stage, trustees are trying to get a handle on the big picture: things like how much oil was spilled, has the spill stopped, where is the oil heading.

[Greg Baker] "And then we plan out what kind of data collection we need to conduct immediately. So what are the potential impacts given the size, the location, the season of the spill, what kinds of resources -- fish, birds, wildlife -- are we expecting are going to be impacted and, therefore, where should we plan to go out in the field and collect that information."

Then they head out. This initial look at damages can take weeks or a few months depending on the spill size. After this initial sweep is done, the trustees decide if the damages are big enough to warrant a long-term, full-blown damage assessment. Greg said that longer-term assessments are often needed because areas sometimes have to be studied over seasons and even over years to really understand what's going on.

That was the case with the Cosco Busan, which took two years to study. One of the things they looked at was how the spill affected different habitats in San Francisco Bay. One such habitat they looked at were rocky intertidal areas. They gathered together what they knew about the types and amounts of plants and animals that were living in these intertidal places pre-spill:

[Greg Baker] "And then we look at the condition of those areas after the spill, and take photographs, take measurements, take scientifically, statistically, rigorously-conducted studies of the before and after, and then to look also over time how quickly they recover, we can from that get a sense of what the impacts of the spill are and what kinds of actions would compensate for that."

Now, of course, an oil spill in a populated area like San Francisco Bay not only affects the environment, plants, and animals...the spill affects people, too. So natural resource trustees estimate the *human* cost from a spill, too. They do this with phone surveys, on-location interviews, statistical polling, and other sampling methods. The goal is to figure out the number of days of recreation people lost because of the spill, and the value that people place on, say, a trip the beach on a given day.

[Greg Baker] "And so those two things: the number of trips that were affected, and then the value each trip are multiplied together to come up with a dollar value for what we think the economic impact of the spill was to recreation."

So the assessment phase comes down to putting a price on what it will take to restore all the damages to fish, plants, and wildlife, to habitats, to shorelines, and to human recreation loss. For the Cosco Busan, the legal settlement came out to $44.4 million dollars, the biggest settlement to date since the Oil Protection Act came into force.   Greg said that assessment isn’t an easy process, but it works.

[Greg Baker] "While we’ve come a long way in recent years in trying to prevent spills from happening, spills will continue to happen. When a spill happens, it’s important not only to clean up the spill, and even not only to impose some fines or penalty on the party responsible for it.  But it’s important also to make the public whole and make the resources whole, so that everything is restored back to the way it was, and as it should have been had the spill not occurred. And that’s the role the damage assessment process plays, and sometimes it seems to take a long time and it may seem it’s somewhat a secretive process because it’s a legal process in addition to being an ecological study, but when all is said and done, I think it accomplishes what it sets out to do."

But, of course, reaching a settlement to restore an area damaged by an oil spill isn’t the end of the journey. We’re joined now by restoration project manager Natalie Cosentino-Manning for the rest of the story.

While Greg and his colleagues were studying the damage caused by the Cosco Busan spill, a parallel plan was evolving that used the data from the damage assessment to target restoration projects that would most effectively and quickly return the Bay to how it was before the spill.

But to get at what this really means, you have to first understand what we’re talking about when we talk about restoration. Natalie said that this can mean many things. It can mean bringing something back that was there before. It can mean rehabilitation – improving an area so a particular species you want to bring back to health can thrive. And it can mean remediation, or the removal of contaminants. So where to start? Well, a good place is to look at restoration projects that were already planned and were pretty much ready to go for San Francisco Bay before the spill happened.  She said it makes sense to build upon existing restoration projects that have already been vetted, rather than starting from scratch. Not only is this more efficient and less costly, but it’s also about getting started as soon as possible so damaged resources aren’t lost.

[Greg Baker] "There are a lot of restoration projects in San Francisco Bay that have kind of been in a holding pattern, primarily because of money, that have been built by a lot of local restoration groups, nonprofit organizations, scientists, and these are areas where historically there used to be marshes, for instance, or wetlands, and we know what the footprint of those wetlands look like, and with just a little bit of change in hydrology or adding a channel, you could bring back that wetland to what it used to look like. And so, when we have a lot of historical documentation, we know where we can actually do restoration."

And when there aren’t pre-existing projects to tap into, the public is another resource to turn to for potential restoration projects.  Natalie said that they know they want to have a project for restoring native oysters and eelgrass in the Bay, so they’re putting out public Requests for Proposals to meet goals that the trustees have laid out in the damage assessment and restoration plan.  The idea, she said, is to try and restore the mosaic of habitat types that were injured by the spill.

Many of the projects will also be aimed at improving human use and recreation in the Bay.  A lot of the time, in fact, Natalie said that the biggest chunk of the settlement for a spill is lost human use, so restoration is also about compensating the public for the inability to enjoy the resources in an area because of spilled oil. 

So for a big spill like Cosco Busan, a question that many people have – namely the people who live in the area – is this: when are the restoration projects going to get going?

[Natalie Cosentino-Manning] "So right now we’re still revising the restoration plan. We have gone out as a draft to the public. We have public comments, so we’re addressing those comments, and then once we get that final out, then we’ll be able to move the funds over and start putting money towards restoration. So we’re hoping for some of those projects that already have details about, hopefully going out this spring or early summer, and start putting some projects on the ground. Other projects that require a little bit more information or if we’re going to be going out to the public, that may be either towards the end of this year or maybe even next year, depending."

Who does the work for each restoration activity? Well, it depends. Natalie said that, for instance, one region damaged by the spill was in a National Park area, so the Park Service may have the people and the staff to do the job.  The Cosco Busan spill also affected NOAA’s Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and staff there may do some restoration work in concert with sanctuary volunteers. In most cases, she said, requests for proposals are sent out to seek companies that specialize in restoration.

[Natalie Cosentino-Manning] “And so we’ll get an array of restoration practitioners who will apply for those funds and we would look at their credibility in doing that type of restoration, how they would do it, and if they have the permits, and those types of things.”

And, last but not least, many people who live around the Bay are also likely to get involved.

[Natalie Cosentino-Manning] “I’ve worked on a lot of restoration projects in San Francisco Bay in which the community is involved. We have a lot of community-based restoration projects. And a lot of times, those folks are still interested in working on restoration regardless of who’s implementing it, so there’ll be a volunteer source that may want to come out and assist with doing the restoration project, for getting out and feeling good about doing something for the resources.  So it really is a mix.”

So for the Cosco Busan, like other big spills around the country, the assessment phase, reaching a settlement, drawing up a restoration plan, incorporating public comments, and ultimately carrying out the projects to restore an area is a process that takes years. Natalie agreed with Greg Baker that this is one of the hardest things to convey – that serving as trustees on behalf of the environment for big oil spills is a tough job. And to do it right, well, it takes time.

[Natalie Cosentino-Manning] “It’s a process and we all need to go through it. I know a lot of people wanted to see results right away and it’s difficult to do. We at NOAA really want to do our best in documenting what was the injured resources and to what degree, and what are the appropriate restoration projects, and all of that takes a little bit of time. We’re working our hardest and trying to do our due diligence in making sure that the nation’s resources are properly accounted for and then properly restored, and sometimes that takes a little bit longer than what most people want. We’re moving forward with some great restoration projects, and we’re getting there very soon here.”

I wrapped up my talk with Natalie by asking her for her personal thoughts about the years she’s spent working on the Cosco Busan spill assessment and restoration plan for the Bay.  She said … well, let’s just listen in …

[Natalie Cosentino-Manning] “I’ve worked along the Bay in San Francisco for the last twelve years. I used to be an algae expert, where I would go out and be on my hands and knees right on the Bay shores and coastal shores, and it’s such an amazing area, and it’s so rich and diverse, that it was heartbreaking for me when the spill happened because I knew personally of many restoration projects that we had put on the ground. And I know how much effort we’ve had our volunteers and the folks that we worked with at local universities to implement those restoration projects, and the fear of losing them was heartbreaking. So coming to this point, seeing the restoration plan coming to fruition … once that first restoration project gets on the ground, it’s going to be a great day."

I’d like to thank Greg Baker and Natalie Cosentino-Manning for taking the time to talk with me for this podcast episode. Greg is regional resource coordinator with NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. Natalie is restoration program manager for the Southwest Region with NOAA's Fisheries Restoration Center.

And that’s all for this week.

If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at nos.info@noaa.gov.  You can find us on the web at oceanservice.noaa.gov … and we’re on Facebook and Twitter. Our handle is usoceangov.
You’ve been listening to Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.  We will return in two weeks. 

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