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The "Spill" on the Spill: As Told by Pete Tuttle


As a contaminants specialist with the Daphne, AL., Ecological Services Field Office since 2001, my job is to assess and address pollution as it affects fish and wildlife and habitat quality. Working oil spills, “Superfund” sites, and water quality issues is what I do for a living. It’s said that each of us will have at least one “crucible” experience in our lives that will alter our trajectory personally and/or professionally. For me, this spill qualifies on both fronts. First, it is happening in a place I call home, so I share in the heartbreak and dismay as a member of the Gulf Coast community. Second, it has elevated a little-known program through which I do my work — the National Resource Damage Assessment and Recovery (NRDAR) — to a place of prominence in redressing the harm that is being done to wildlife and to people as a result of this oil spill.

NRDAR operates under three laws: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (also known as CERCLA or Superfund); the Clean Water Act; and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). When a hazardous substance such as oil enters the environment, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources can be injured. Under OPA, the party responsible must not only remove the oil and clean up the spill site, it must also compensate the public for any natural resource injuries, diminishment, or loss of use or services. Several Department of the Interior bureaus, along with state, tribal and other federal partners, act as trustees for these resources on behalf of the public

I explain how NRDAR works using the analogy of a house fire. We’re living in our house and life is good (that’s the baseline) until the neighbor’s kid lights our house on fire. The fire department responds, put the fire out and everyone goes home. Now NRDAR begins.

First, a few terms to get us going. Resources may be viewed as things of intrinsic value. We’ll call the house the habitat, or ecosystem. The contents (clothes, kitchen table, irreplaceable Taylor 450 cut-away guitar, etc.) are elements of our ecosystem. Both the house and its contents are resources. The house also provides certain services. It keeps us warm and dry; our garden out back provides food; we lock the door to keep out criminals; and it provides a safe place to raise our children. These can be viewed as resource or ecological services.

Now, the damage assessment. The house is not a total loss. But we need to figure out what’s lost, what’s diminished, what can be fixed, and what’s fine. The kitchen and living room are a total loss. The bedrooms are not burned, but have extensive smoke damage. We do our damage assessment, quantify the injuries, and estimate what it would take to replace, restore, or rehabilitate. When the house is restored and its contents restored and replaced, life will again be good (restored to baseline).

But with our house burned down, we were forced to move into a hotel and eat at Waffle House. Our inability to live in our house/habitat can be viewed as lost use. We also lost several days of work while we’re squabbling with insurance adjusters and lawyers. We’re entitled to compensation for these losses.

We tally up the injury to our house/habitat, lost/diminished resources, lost use, and our costs to calculate everything, and come up with a damage estimate. This will bring us back to baseline and compensate us for our lost use. We provide our damage estimate to the neighbor/insurance broker/lawyer. Hopefully we settle out of court, but, if we’re unsuccessful, we litigate.

Once we resolve the issue and get our money to rebuild/refurnish/replant our petunias, we work with the architects and gardeners to design the rebuild. The contractors go forward with the plans. We get our house and our garden gnome back and, hopefully, life is again good. Finally, inspectors monitor construction activities and stop by every so often to make sure that the rebuilt house is still standing and the roof is not leaking, and we keep a few bucks in the bank for contingencies.

Back to the spill. As fate would have it, I was attending a NRDAR workshop in Phoenix, AZ, on April 21, when the Deepwater Horizon rig sank. As I flew across the country toward home, I tracked events as they were unfolding, with awareness dawning that this was a whole new ball game for oil spills.

A small group of “locals” (from Department of the Interior, Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, and the states of Alabama and Mississippi) met to get our response underway. As the Service’s representative, I focused on getting the people and the structure in place to do the reconnaissance, capture, and recovery of wildlife. My job was to gather and work with other contaminants and wildlife experts and experienced oil spill responders to recommend to the Unified Command (UC) how best to go about this and to identify the most sensitive habitats in need of protection.

Almost overnight, the number of people involved in the spill response mushroomed from about a dozen to more than 400. With the increase in size, we found our voice and effectiveness diminishing within the response structure. But Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar solved that concern by appointing Interior Bureaus as a member of the Unified Command. As a member of the UC, the Service is playing a key role in ensuring that those who speak for wildlife are being heard so that we can carry out our trust responsibilities on behalf of the American public.

DOI, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the five Gulf Coast States, are now in the early stages of a NRDAR action, and other state, federal, and tribal trustees are expected to join. All of the Trustees are represented on the Trustee Steering Committee for NRDAR operations. We work as equal partners; there are no secondary players. The trustees have formed 13 technical working groups (TWGs) that are creating the study plans for determining the extent of injuries to broad resource categories, such as migratory birds, fish, sea turtles, etc. The Service has the lead on the bird TWG. We are also strong partners in the other TWGs. One of the most rewarding aspects of working on this spill has been the collaboration among DOI and our trustee partners. This has been a fast-paced, high- pressure situation with strong and legitimate differences of opinion among study planners, but I have yet to hear a voice raised in anger.

BP has expressed a strong desire to cooperate in this NRDAR program and has provided funding to the trustees to initiate the action. BP has also established a process to fund injury studies. In this process, the trustees draft injury assessment studies and negotiate with the BP representative (Entrix) on study objectives and protocols. Once the trustees and Entrix have reached agreement on a plan, BP will both fund and participate in plan implementation. Although it is currently a cooperative situation, the trustees remain focused on the fact that this is a potentially litigious situation. We recognize the need to remain on our toes at all times to ensure that the public’s interests are fully protected and that habitats are fully restored.

Since early on, we’ve had people on the ground working 14-hour days and weekends, simultaneously designing and implementing assessment studies and identifying restoration activities. Using money advanced by BP and the National Pollution Fund Center, we have been conducting aerial surveys and carrying out nesting colony observations, and at the same time we are working the phones to gather and share expertise to both create our long-term plans and coordinate our current actions.

I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in this event. As in the case of Hurricane Katrina, we are not only living history; we are making it. I liken it to the early days in my career when I worked at a substation of the National Fisheries Research Center in a small town in Nevada. In those days, I served as an emergency medical technician on the county’s volunteer fire and ambulance squad. These experiences taught me that in a crisis, I’d much rather be a part of history than remain on the sidelines. I am proud to be part of the Department and the Service’s response in the Gulf Coast’s time of need. I am even more proud of my friends and colleagues for their dedication, support, and commitment in responding to this incident.

Last updated: October 15, 2010