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Tulane to embark on Gulf community study as BP downplays damage

Few can deny the crippling effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill on Gulf Coast communities. Now faculty and students from Louisiana’s Tulane University will be studying the impacts of BP’s spill in Louisiana and Alabama, thanks to a $1.4 million grant from the BP Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI).

The grant was directed to the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy (DRLA), an interdisciplinary program at Tulane created in direct response to failing leadership in the wake of events such as Hurricane Katrina. Although DRLA studied initial payments from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility to fisherman in the area, this will be the first study conducted by the group that attempts to address impacts from social, economic and public health points of view.

“Tulane’s research will provide guidance to community leaders and policy makers in identifying actions they can take to more effectively mitigate disaster impacts,” said a press release from the university. “Researchers will choose target communities based on oil spill impact, vulnerability to future oil spills and socio-economic indicators.”

Ky Luu, the executive director of DRLA, notes in the press release that the study will help researchers “develop evidence-based strategic planning and risk communication strategies for communities facing similar disasters in the future.” And this research may be needed sooner rather than later.

Right now, the eastern seaboard is heatedly debating the expansion of the nation’s offshore drilling to include Atlantic waters. Those opposed to the move consistently point back to the disastrous aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon. Even five years later, the scientific community still doesn’t quite know the scope of the damage done to ecosystems on the Gulf Coast and in the Gulf.

However, that hasn’t stopped BP from claiming that the Gulf is returning to baseline conditions from before the Deepwater Horizon calamity. The company recently issued a 40-page report, just a month before the five-year anniversary of the event, sharing with the public the company’s views on the progression of recovery and restoration. Instead, however, environmentalists and governments interpret it less as a qualified report and more of an attempt to downplay the damage. In the first pages of the report, BP expounds on the various factors that “lessened the spill’s impact,” citing that “oil that reached the shoreline had undergone significant physical and chemical changes and contained only a small fraction of the compounds of concern.”

The report also stands by a statement from a U.S. Coast Guard federal on-scene coordinator in December 2010, which claimed, “Based on the robust sampling effort, the expert analysis of the data provided in this report [OSAT-1] and the decision criteria summarized above, I have determined that there is no actionable oil in the water or sediments of the deepwater or offshore zones.” The initial Operational Science Advisory Teams study (OSAT-1) has been highly contested as more scientific research unfolds in the Gulf, uncovering abnormalities in fish populations and dolphin deaths, among other aspects of the ecosystem.

BP’s five-year report refutes past studies—studies which were even funded by the company—leading officials to dismiss the publication altogether. The federal and state Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees, Louisiana officials and environmentalists alike have accused BP of cherry-picking favorable evidence and ignoring reports which shed harsher light on the disaster’s aftermath, according to the Times-Picayune.

The same community of skeptics have also stated that the report is premature. Given the ongoing nature of scientific study in the Gulf and on the Gulf Coast, including programs such as DRLA’s, in was inappropriate to come to any conclusions about the state of the Gulf so soon.

Despite BP’s assertion that everything from the deepwater ecosystems to the Gulf Coast community economies are on track to full recovery, studies will continue to collect data and determine precisely how each environment was impacted. While Tulane’s researchers study onshore coastal communities, another group of researchers from Louisiana led by a professor from the University of Louisiana in Lafayette will be focusing their efforts on marine mammals in the Gulf. Funding for that study was also provided through GoMRI.

DRLA researchers will work with other members of the Consortium of Resilient Gulf Communities to gather data and provide the most comprehensive understanding of the spill’s impacts. In addition, Tulane’s Computer Science Department has received $480,000 to develop a web tool that will help coordinate and display that data.

Tulane added its degree in disaster management in mid-2009, just before the catastrophic spill in April 2010 that would release crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. Since then, the program has studied disaster relief and humanitarian aid in Haiti and Louisiana, aided universities vulnerable to disasters in Africa and Asia and even received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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