Our view: Spill damage

Gulf toll could have been worse, but conclusive science still out

September 14, 2010 

Alaskans who remember the grim numbers of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 hope that the some encouraging signs pan out for our fellow Americans in the Gulf states. Spring predictions of a cataclysmic environmental disaster appear overblown. It may be that when the damage is toted up, we'll find that the Gulf spill doesn't match the damage in Alaska.

That's the gist of a New York Times report published in the Daily News on Tuesday.

If true, such news provides a measure of relief, but no reason to pop champagne corks.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill was a disaster from the start because 11 people were killed. In the months to follow, almost 5 million barrels of oil gushed out as BP, other companies and government agencies struggled to respond. Oil fouled Gulf waters, marshes and beaches. Businesses and livelihoods took a tremendous hit, from tourism to fisheries to the oil industry itself. Marine life suffered.

What's needed now is a fair, clear-eyed assessment of the damages. We gain nothing by either overstating or understating the consequences of what happened and is happening in the Gulf.

To that end, let's remember a lesson we've learned in Alaska -- good science takes time, and preliminary conclusions don't always stand the test of time.

Another New York Times story that ran Monday pointed out that many researchers don't have the money to continue their work in measuring the effects of the Gulf spill. Good science goes begging. The result? We may not know the full effects of the Gulf spill.

So far, ocean currents and Gulf warmth have worked in favor of recovery. We can be thankful for that. At the same time, the shortage of public funds and political fighting over how to allocate $500 million in BP-funded research money stand between scientists and their work. We need leadership to break this impasse.

We need to know the real consequences of this spill to know where and how to concentrate prevention, protection, response and recovery efforts -- for the sake of the Gulf and for the next spill.

BOTTOM LINE: Accurate measure of Gulf spill consequences requires sustained scientific research.

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