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The Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program: Tasked with Restoring the Gulf


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Daphne, Ala. - What’s broke, and how do we fix it?

A girl and two boys stand on a beach (Cat Island) with binoculars, searching for oiled birds

On Cat Island, a barrier island off the coast of Biloxi, Miss., a patrol team for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program searches for and documents oiled wildlife. From left: USFWS employees Jon Woodard and Ingrid Brofman, and Mike Biros, a field technician for Entrix, a BP Contractor. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS

Many people sit at computers in a busy looking command center

In a hotel conference room in Daphne, Ala., the NRDAR Operations Center oversees assessments of oil spill damage and restoration plans in five states. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS

That’s the simplified version of a little-known process called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program (NRDAR), which is currently operating in five states affected by the BP oil spill.

Pete Tuttle, who coined that quick summary of NRDAR, is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contaminants specialist based in Daphne, Ala., currently serving as the Department of the Interior Case Coordinator for NRDAR on the spill.

The process Tuttle is helping to administer is likely to receive increasing attention from the public as its importance in restoring the wetlands, marshes, beaches and habitats of the Gulf region becomes more prominent and receives more media attention.

The purpose of NRDAR is to assess the extent of damage to natural resources during an incident such as the oil spill, and make sure that the resources are restored at no cost to the American taxpayers. Instead, the party or parties responsible for the damage pay for the restoration.

NRDAR is separate from the claims system for individuals and businesses that BP has set up; its purpose is to restore damage to “trust resources” – resources that are owned by the public, which can include national wildlife refuges, military bases, parks, endangered species and their habitats, drinking water supplies, etc.

It is also separate from many of the response operations, such as rescuing birds, deploying boom, and cleaning oil from shores and beaches.

“The response in this incident is to stop the release and clean up the spill. When they clean up the spill, the ecosystem starts to restore itself. You have natural recovery even if you just leave the system alone,” explained Jim Haas, who is currently serving as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service NRDAR project leader.

“If we were just to stop at the response of cleaning up the oil that reaches the shore, we would be left with a degraded ecosystem that would take years to recover, if it ever does completely,” he continued. “Part of the purpose of NRDAR is to accelerate that recovery curve so the system is restored back to where it was more quickly. We have primary restoration projects directed at specific resources, such as an injured beach or a refuge. That’s primary restoration.

“But there is also a category where the ecosystem has been damaged during a block of time, and you have lost the services that ecosystem could have provided. Those cannot be recovered, and primary restoration is not going to get those lost services. Those become part of compensatory restoration,” Haas said.

NRDAR operates under three laws: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA); the Clean Water Act; and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which was passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Under NRDAR, any government agency that has trust resource responsibilities can become a Trustee in the process. The Trustees are all on a steering committee that supervises NRDAR assessments and restoration for the entire spill region; they are equal partners. Current trustees include the Department of the Interior (including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other bureaus), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and agencies from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida; more agencies are expected to sign on as Trustees.

The Trustees have formed 13 Technical Working Groups (TWGs) that are creating the study plans for determining the extent and severity of the injury to broad resource categories, such as migratory birds, fish, sea turtles, etc, Tuttle explained. The Fish and Wildlife Service has the lead on the Bird TWG, but is a partner in the other TWGs.

The Bird TWG for all five states operates out of a hotel conference room in Daphne, Ala.; other NRDAR operations are spread throughout the Gulf. The NRDAR Operations room buzzes with activity, and is the place from where teams are deployed to walk miles of beaches and shorelines, taking photos and recording data on wildlife and oil damage.

“I’m really proud that we have assembled the best damage assessment people and the best bird people from across the Service, the states, academia, and non-governmental organizations to help us create the best possible plans for assessing and addressing potential injuries to birds from this spill,” Tuttle said.

 The BP oil spill presents challenges for NRDAR personnel because it is the largest geographic area the program has ever addressed, and because the oil continued to flow even as NRDAR operations were underway. “But we had a  lot of time to plan, since it was three weeks before the oil first reached land, so that made us more efficient,” Tuttle said.

 “We have signed a funding agreement with BP to fund some of the NRDA activities,” said Haas. “The actual restoration claim will hopefully be a negotiated settlement, not litigation. BP essentially will get a bill. We won’t know what the size of that is going to be for several years.”

But even when a settlement between NRDAR and BP is reached and much of the restoration work is complete, NRDAR will continue monitoring the restoration of so much valuable land and wildlife habitat. “It will be decades before we understand the full impact of the spill on the region,” said Tuttle. “In terms of monitoring, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re looking at 30 years.”

Last updated: October 15, 2010