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First Gulf oil spill natural resource study reveals extensive damage in shoreline, deepwater habitats
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First Gulf oil spill natural resource study reveals extensive damage in shoreline, deepwater habitats

The extensive damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the ensuing cleanup efforts to natural resources along the shoreline and in deepwater habitats of the Gulf of Mexico were outlined for the first time Friday (Dec. 6) in a comprehensive environmental assessment.

The assessment, released by federal and state oil spill trustees, accompanies a plan for spending $627 million on 44 projects aimed at restoring some of the damage outlined in the report, or compensating the public for lost resources. That plan is the third batch of projects to be paid for with $1 billion set aside in 2011 by BP to build "early restoration" projects under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process required by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

The release of the report and tentative approval of the projects were announced Friday by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the Jean Lafitte Historical National Park's Barataria Unit in Marrero on Friday morning.

The report cites studies showing continued problems with growing oysters in both Louisiana waters, where freshwater diversions designed to keep oil out of wetlands killed oyster beds, and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, which may be linked to toxic chemicals associated with the BP oil. It also recounts concerns about the deaths of hundreds of bottlenosed dolphins, thousands of sea turtles and migratory waterfowl -- plus potential reproductive problems for these species.

The report also outlines concerns about tiny organisms living in deep water in the Gulf, and the possible effects of their loss on commercial fisheries, while also raising questions about the future of deepwater coral reefs and bottom-loving organisms close to the site of the BP Macondo well 50 miles off Louisiana's coast.

The findings will come as no surprise to those following the effects of the 2010 disaster that resulted in as much as 4.2 million barrels of oil being released into the Gulf over five months, coating coastal beaches from east Texas to the Florida Panhandle and soaking into wetlands along hundreds of miles of Louisiana's coastline.

The report provides only a summary of most contamination concerns. And while both federal officials and BP have made so-called "metadata" -- individual sample collection records -- available during the past few months, more comprehensive reports explaining how the spill may have affected -- and may still be affecting -- wildlife are believed being kept under wraps by federal and state officials who are concerned that BP could walk away from their obligations.

BP would get credit for the early restoration projects against a future, more comprehensive set of projects that would be agreed on by federal and state trustees once the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is completed, which is likely to take several more years.

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By Mark Schleifstein, | The Times-Picayune 

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