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Calculating the Environmental Costs of Big Oil Spills

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Closed beach sign at Crissy Field, San Francisco Bay.

Closed beach sign at Crissy Field, San Francisco Bay, after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill. Credit: Mila Zinkova, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0.

How do we deal with big spills along America’s coasts? In the latest podcast from NOAA’s National Ocean Service, scientist Greg Baker helps explain the flip side of cleaning up oil spills: Figuring out the environmental costs—and what it would take to fix them.

Listen to the podcast here, and read some highlights from the discussion below:

“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.”
–Greg Baker, Office of Response and Restoration

Who are these “natural resource trustees” who are speaking up for nature?

They’re the people whose everyday jobs are dedicated to taking care of public natural resources like the fish and the birds and the beaches. They work for the states and tribes affected by the spill as well as federal agencies like NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of the Interior. When a big oil spill happens, they band together in a group known as “trustees” to act on behalf of the environment.

“And then we [the trustees] 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.”
–Greg Baker

Once they’re ready, they take a first look at the environmental damages, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on the spill size. If things look bad enough, the trustees move ahead to the next phase: 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 in the ecosystem.

That was the case with the Cosco Busan oil spill, which took two years to study. The spill occurred when the cargo ship Cosco Busan crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in November 2007, causing one of the largest oil spills in the history of San Francisco Bay.

NOAA scientists helped study the spill’s impacts on herring, which migrate into the Bay each winter to spawn. In places affected by the spill, their eggs turned up dead or deformed. Because of this, we studied another two seasons of herring spawning to uncover any lasting effects the oil might have had on these fish.

The point of all these studies is to calculate a dollar amount for 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 [leaves this blog], the biggest settlement to date since the Oil Protection Act came into force.

Check out more National Ocean Service podcasts [leaves this blog] and subscribe on iTunes.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

One thought on “Calculating the Environmental Costs of Big Oil Spills

  1. Big oil spills really pose a threat to the environment as well as to the health and safety of those living around it. Such incidents can be avoided if proper safety measures will be implemented and observed. In doing so, a lot of money can be saved from restoring the areas that are affected of the spills.

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