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Scientists have been refused access to key data that NOAA has given to BP. Data access is necessary to plan research, investigate damage, and assess critical environmental effects. University researchers and other independent scientists have requested data from the government so that they can track the oil and its effects on the water chemistry and ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, but NOAA has refused to release the data.

Independent scientists, and science bloggers including me, have been strongly questioning the use of dispersants in deep water because dispersed oil in deep water could potentially cause oil plumes dead zones that might last for years. The EPA allowed BP to use dispersants in 5000 ft. deep water despite the lack of data on the effects of dispersing oil in deep water.

This is fucking outrageous. Sharing information with a civil or criminal defendant while denying that information to those who could show the damages caused by the defendant could be considered a conspiracy to cover up a crime if you or I did it.

BP and EPA are potential defendants in civil suits over the effects of the dispersed oil. Moreover, BP officers could be indicted for criminal negligence for the spill and worker deaths. To say the least, it is inappropriate for the government to be providing key data to BP while denying data access to researchers who are attempting to track and understand the environmental effects of the dispersed oil. Delaying data access in the name of data "quality" may make it difficult or impossible to track the oil and the effects of the dispersed oil on the environment.

Dan Froomkin reported how NOAA took 2 months to get one ship to the Gulf spill to gather data on it's effects. Data have been released on the samples taken from the first ship. Finally 6 ships were sent to the Gulf to study the spill but NOAA won't release the data that it is sharing with BP to researchers and the public. Moreover, they planned to keep damage assessment information that could be used in lawsuits secret....while sharing that information with BP.

NOAA eventually sent out a half dozen ships packed with scientists, on back-to-back research missions. But the only detailed results so far made public were collected during a single mission that ended in late May -- almost two months ago. And some data -- including from the very first research vessel to take underwater tests, the Jack Fitz -- wasn't slated to be released at all, because it's part of what NOAA calls its Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA).

NRDA data is traditionally kept close to the vest until potentially adversarial legal wranglings are over. But in this case, the obvious lead defendant, BP, is part of the Joint Incident Command, to whom all the raw data is being turned over immediately.

NOAA officials told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that, in a turnaround, they will now be making NRDA data public -- but they offered no timeline for that process.

Independent university based research scientists who want to understand the effects of dispersed oil on the environment are being stonewalled by NOAA.

The scientists say their mission must be undertaken immediately, before BP kills the runaway well. They propose using what's probably the world's worst oil accident to learn how crude oil and natural gas move through water when they're released at high volumes from the deep sea.

The scientists also want to see how the oil breaks down into toxic and safer components in different ocean conditions, information that would help predict which ocean species are most at risk. The experiment also could provide data that would help in dealing with any future spills.

"Without this understanding, we're no better off when the next one occurs," said Ira Leifer, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California at Santa Barbara who's leading the team that's proposed the experiment.

Here's NOAA's justification for withholding the data.

In a statement to the Huffington Post, NOAA officials insisted that they are working as hard as they can to get the public accurate data, as fast as possible. "We understand the public's need for answers and consider it our responsibility to help provide those answers," NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney wrote in an e-mail. "Our commitment is to do what it takes to provide the right answers. Doing so requires upholding the highest standards of data quality and analysis to ensure our conclusions are correct. This process does take time, but we are doing everything we can to make quality data available in a timely fashion, to responders, our scientific partners, and to the public."

Bullshit. BP is a civil and possibly criminal defendant, not a scientific partner. NOAA can't share data with BP and deny it to scientists who could independently evaluate the quality of the data and claim that data are being withheld to uphold standards.

I reviewed the meeting report of the group that was convened to support the EPA's decision to continue to allow the use of dispersants. The 108 page report PDF has a large amount of interesting information including some data on the BP spill, but little information on the environmental effects of using dispersants on a gusher of oil in deep water.

For example, the last figure in the report provides interesting information for using fluorescence to determine the levels of dispersed oil in sea water.

But this type of data isn't a basis for deciding to use dispersants at a water depth of 5000 feet.

The committee was rightly concerned about the effects of undispersed oil on birds. However, they had little scientific basis for approving the use of dispersants at 5000 feet depth. In my opinion, it appears that the committee was under some pressure to come up with a conclusion that would please their sponsors.

Independent researchers have proposed to determine the flow rate of oil and the environmental effects of the dispersed oil at depth but so far NOAA has not been supportive.

Leifer's team is made up of 15 experts on oil and gas in the ocean. He and some of the others also worked on the federal government's Flow Rate Technical Group, which was formed to get a better estimate of the size of the disaster. Leifer said the group did the best it could with limited data provided by BP. The latest official estimate is that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day are flowing from the runaway well.

Leifer's proposed experiment could help improve the estimate, but because the flow amount can change over time, it would still be impossible to come up with an accurate amount, he said.

"We're trying to figure out not just how much is coming out, but where it's going," Leifer said. "The question is where is it going, why is it going there and what is it killing?"

To date, the government and BP have come up with an incredibly low count of dead birds and marine organisms. It appears that they don't want us to answer the questions the scientists want to know.

A bird crisis is growing as the fall bird migration begins.

On July 5, local birder David Muth reported that the vanguards of the migrant shorebirds had arrived on Grand Isle, and yesterday, July 6, day 78 of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill I found them myself.  North of the front beach in what are known locally as the "Exxon fields" foraged 5 Marbled Godwits, about 20 Dowitcher, and a Black-bellied Plover.  This may not sound like a lot of birds, but it illustrates that shorebird migration doesn't start in September.  It is here now and revving up, like water through an earthen damn, birds will trickle through in an ever increasing flow until the masses surge in by the thousands.  

Airplanes can track the bird catastrophe on the surface.

However, the catastrophe below the surface is very hard to track, and NOAA is not collaborating effectively with scientists to track the dispersed oil and its effects. In fact, NOAA is sandbagging the scientists.

Dan Fromkin interviewed Vernon Asper, a professor of marine science from the University of Southern Mississippi who worked on the first ship to study the spill.

"What I'd like to see is the data released as soon as possible, with the proper qualifications, in the interest of openness and especially in the interest of allowing scientists like myself to plan our work. To plan our sampling, we need to know what they've found," Asper told the Huffington Post.

Scientists are primarily searching for signs of oil in the water and the consequent depletion of oxygen. Calibrating oxygen measurements is apparently a consistent challenge, and researchers typically don't release data until they've accounted for any inconsistencies.

Asper gets that. But, he said, "even if their results are off by 10 or 20 percent because of calibration or something, that still helps me. That's the kind of information that's required." In this case, he said, "my view on that would be: Go ahead and release the data but say: 'These don't agree. We haven't figured this out, but here they are anyway.' It's still totally useful information."

And Asper expressed frustration about one issue in particular: "If BP can see the data," he asked, "why can't the taxpayers see it?"

Update from the comments

FishGuyDave sums up the story.

Let's be clear about the self-interest here...

I teach marine fisheries science in south Florida, and we've been discussing the situation in the Gulf each week.  One of the points worth making -- which no-one else has publicly, as far as I know -- is that BP has no, none, zilch incentive to fund any research that could potentially show any additional liability for the corporation.  Despite spending almost $50m immediately on PR in newspapers, etc., they've only given $10m to the entire state of Florida for academic research rapid assessment and response grants (and similarly small chunks to other states in the northern Gulf).  The $500m that BP promised for scientific research right after the gusher started has now been shelved for at least seven months, far too late to gather any sort of baseline data to assess long-term damage.

I also have lots of friends at all levels of NOAA, and they're indeed "under orders" regarding data access and speaking to the public.  Still, this is the very agency that should be acting on behalf of the larger public interest.  Kind of sad for an agency with such a history of good scientific research, almost equally as much as it's angering over how it's fallen over time.

Originally posted to FishOutofWater on Tue Jul 13, 2010 at 08:38 PM PDT.

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