Update from the shores of Louisiana

A trio of events happening simultaneously this week along the Gulf coast is stirring debate:

  1. The team responsible for paying out damages to Gulf spill victims is about to start writing checks to those who’ve proved they deserve it;
  2. NOAA has given its blessing to reopening a 4,200-square-mile area of the Gulf of Meico to fishing, near where the BP well exploded;
  3. and chemical researchers are still trying to draw attention to what they regard as fact, that the Gulf seafood bears toxic levels that are still too high for human consumption.

Like most things in Louisiana, the three are inextricably related: In order to write checks, Ken Feinberg – charged with doling out $20 billion of BP’s cash — needs to be able, as best he can, to ascertain the long-term impacts of the spill on the region. The researcher he hired has issued a report that suggests the impacts of the spill will be less severe than anticipated, on both fish and man. Yet there is a fervent crowd of scientists and environmentalists working in the region who contend the testing being done by the government is insufficient and that the seafood is still tainted. Amid that confusion the federal government (via NOAA) feels a need open closed fishing grounds in order to get fishermen back to work and stimulate the local economies.
As reported in the Times, marine biologist Wes Tunnell was hired by Feinberg, to guesstimate how long the Gulf and particularly its seafood would take to recover from the spill. His 39-page report was released yesterday. While admitting the report would not be the last word, Tunnell – a marine researcher and associate director of Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute which focuses on the Gulf of Mexico – says the Gulf is undergoing a “strong recovery, with overall fish populations potentially back to pre-spill levels by the end of 2012.”

Criticism came fast. Ian MacDonald, a member of the National Wildlife Federation’s science advisory panel said, “This is not a scientific report, it’s an opinion.” LSU biological oceanographer James Cowan said, “He may be right, and I hope he’s right. But it doesn’t sit well with me. I think it’s too soon to just write it off.”

Nonetheless, Feinberg will use the Tunnell report to base his payouts.

The same day that Tunnell claimed repairing the Gulf was happening more quickly than expected, the federal government reopened fishing grounds off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama which had first been closed immediately after the April 20 spill, then reopened in the fall and closed again on November 24 when a commercial shrimper found tar balls in his net.

After some investigation, NOAA decided those tar balls were unrelated to the BP spill, so opened the 4,200 square miles again to deepwater shrimping.

None of which sits well with those who still believe that human health has been adversely impacted by high levels of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in Gulf seafood and the impact of all that oil and dispersants that were released into both the water and air.

Citing stats from recent blood tests on Gulf residents and clean-up workers, which show high levels of a variety of “volatile solvents,” the Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster has organized a public forum in New Orleans. Led by Dr. Wilma Subra the hope of the forum is to air some of these differing takes and remind local residents that the impacts of the spill linger.

The forum can be streamed live at Fluxview, USA

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.

[flickr image via lagohsep]