Senator Asks: Why Should We Trust BP’s Damage Assessment?

The federal government is relying too heavily on BP to help assess the damage the company itself has caused during the monster oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to to a Senate subcommittee chairman.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) expressed his concern in a letter last week in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ahead of a hearing the lawmaker intends to hold Tuesday within the Senate Environment and Public Work Committee’s water and wildlife subcommittee which he chairs.

Specifically, Cardin worries about the role BP will play in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), a legal process that begins the process of holding BP responsible for the scope of the clean-up for three months of crude that have flooded the Gulf of Mexico that began in April with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

BP reportedly has intentionally lowballed estimates of how much oil actually has been fouling the waters off Louisiana and a growing number of Gulf Coast states.

The BP spill, the worst disaster of its kind in U.S. history, has idled shrimpers, commercial fishermen, and jeopardized the livelihoods of those in the tourism and other industries along the Gulf Coast.

“If we can’t trust BP to tell us how much oil had been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months, why should we trust them when it comes to assessing the damage they have done to our environment?” Cardin asks. “I want to be sure that the federal government, which takes the lead in assessing the environmental impact of this catastrophe, has the tools and resources necessary to accomplish this critical task.”

In his letter to Salazar (PDF), Cardin notes that the National Park Service (NPS) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), along with other federal agencies, must work with BP in the process to conduct studies to identify the extent of resource injuries, the best methods for restoring those resources, and the type and amount of restoration required.

“This process is critical for holding responsible parties accountable. The NRDA will dictate the scope and scale of the restoration work,” Cardin writes.

“It has come to my attention that NPS and FWS must rely to a troubling extent on approval from BP before beginning any assessment work,” he adds. “Laws and regulations that surround the NRDA and the administration of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund require NPS and FWS consult with BP on proposed studies; a process that can take several weeks and may allow the responsible parties to delay and obstruct time sensitive work.”

To ensure their ability to collect data and avoid delay, other agencies have established funding mechanisms, such as reimbursable agreements, which allow them to begin assessment work while the required consultation process unfolds, Cardin says.

Cardin tells Salazar that Interior should immediately create such a mechanism to enable FWS and NPS to conduct their natural resource damage assessment work in a timely fashion.

Cardin says that at his Tuesday hearing, titled, “Assessing Natural Resource Damages Resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster,” he plans to question the Fish and Wildlife Service on the issue of timely funding for assessment work.

“I expect that the Department [of Interior] will be in a position at that time to announce how it will address it going forward including any recommendations for Congressional action,” Cardin tells Salazar.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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