Photo: A female brown pelican being cleaned after the Deepwater Horizon Spill. Photo credit: Tom MacKenzie/USFWS.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history. The explosion of an Exxon oil tanker dumped an estimated 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico, necessitating exhaustive cleanup efforts. Response to catastrophic spills such as these can be lengthy and complicated, which is why many different agencies are typically involved in the process, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). In fact, several members from our Washington office participated in the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon Spill, including Cindy Schexnider, an environmental contaminant specialist. “It was crazy, just crazy,” she recalls. “Not much sleep for sure.” The experiences of Deepwater Horizon highlight the importance of working proactively with oil companies before spills happen to plan and organize an effective response.
When oil spills do happen in Washington state, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff are usually involved. Spills can have a detrimental impact on fish, wildlife, and other natural resources, which is why one of the top priorities during response is to clean, protect, and prevent additional harm to the environment. After the acute aftermath is taken care of, Service staff also assist in dealing with the longer-term consequences.
That’s where Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) comes in. The goal of NRDAR is to restore the services provided by natural resources (such as land, fish, wildlife, water, and other resources) to their baseline, pre-spill condition. To do so, trustees for public natural resources work together to assess and document any injuries on natural resources caused by contamination. Trustees are certain federal or state agencies and Native American tribes – collectively known as natural resource trustees – that evaluate the impacts of oil spills and plan and carry out restoration efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is considered a trustee.
Photo: USFWS biologists assessing beach conditions after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Comparing data against a baseline condition generated from surveys taken on clean beaches is one way scientists determined post-spill damage. Photos credit: Gary Peeples (left), USFWS (right).
Once trustees have determined the type and amount of restoration needed to compensate the public for injuries to their natural resources, they present a NRDAR claim to the party(ies) responsible for the spill. Trustees and responsible parties typically work together to to reach a settlement for the damages. When a settlement is reached, the trustees draft and implement a restoration plan and monitor the restoration projects to ensure their long-term success.