The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hoarding vast amounts of raw data that independent marine researchers say could help both the public and scientists better understand the extent of the damage being caused by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In most cases, NOAA insists on putting the data through a ponderous, many-weeks-long vetting process before making it public.
In other cases, NOAA actually intended to keep the data secret indefinitely. But officials told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that they have now decided to release it -- though when remains unclear.
BP, incidentally, gets to see all this data right away.
At issue are test results from a series of research missions conducted by NOAA or NOAA-sponsored ships exploring the extent and effect of oil beneath the surface of the Gulf. Due to the leak's depth and the unprecedented use of dispersants, much of the oil is thought to have spread in gigantic undersea plumes, potentially adding a huge, so-far mostly invisible toll to the devastation so obviously manifesting itself along the nation's Gulf shore.
Despite early urgent warnings from independent scientists that oil suspended in the water column is likely killing wide swaths of sea life in the short run -- and possibly endangering marine animals and coastlines for decades to come -- NOAA was slow to send out research vessels to probe the extent of the problem, and even slower to confirm it.
NOAA eventually sent out a half dozen ships packed with scientists, on back-to-back research missions. But the only detailed results so far made public were collected during a single mission that ended in late May -- almost two months ago. And some data -- including from the very first research vessel to take underwater tests, the Jack Fitz -- wasn't slated to be released at all, because it's part of what NOAA calls its Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA).
NRDA data is traditionally kept close to the vest until potentially adversarial legal wranglings are over. But in this case, the obvious lead defendant, BP, is part of the Joint Incident Command, to whom all the raw data is being turned over immediately.
NOAA officials told the Huffington Post on Tuesday that, in a turnaround, they will now be making NRDA data public -- but they offered no timeline for that process.
In a statement to the Huffington Post, NOAA officials insisted that they are working as hard as they can to get the public accurate data, as fast as possible. "We understand the public's need for answers and consider it our responsibility to help provide those answers," NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney wrote in an e-mail. "Our commitment is to do what it takes to provide the right answers. Doing so requires upholding the highest standards of data quality and analysis to ensure our conclusions are correct. This process does take time, but we are doing everything we can to make quality data available in a timely fashion, to responders, our scientific partners, and to the public."
Kenney also noted that a considerable amount of other information is being posted online, on such websites as NOAA's new GeoPlatform.gov. Indeed, detailed data about such things as current ocean conditions are posted in near real-time on one NOAA website. And since the get-go, NOAA has been publicly tracking the trajectory of the oil that's made it to the surface.
But when it comes to data about what's going on under the surface, some marine researchers are fed up with NOAA's slow-walk policy.
"It's not about science, it's about what their responsibility is to the public," said Vernon Asper, a professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi.
"We want to find out what the impact is going to be. In order to do that, we need to find out as much as possible about what's happening to the oil, and make as many measurements as we possibly can."
Asper was part of a team of scientists aboard the Pelican, one of the first research vessels to test for oil under the surface -- and, it should be noted, to report the existence of underwater plumes.
"What I'd like to see is the data released as soon as possible, with the proper qualifications, in the interest of openness and especially in the interest of allowing scientists like myself to plan our work. To plan our sampling, we need to know what they've found," Asper told the Huffington Post.
Scientists are primarily searching for signs of oil in the water and the consequent depletion of oxygen. Calibrating oxygen measurements is apparently a consistent challenge, and researchers typically don't release data until they've accounted for any inconsistencies.
Asper gets that. But, he said, "even if their results are off by 10 or 20 percent because of calibration or something, that still helps me. That's the kind of information that's required." In this case, he said, "my view on that would be: Go ahead and release the data but say: 'These don't agree. We haven't figured this out, but here they are anyway.' It's still totally useful information."
And Asper expressed frustration about one issue in particular: "If BP can see the data," he asked, "why can't the taxpayers see it?"
Ira Leifer, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has grown so frustrated with the overall dearth of data regarding how much oil has spilled and where and how it is spreading that he has put together an all-star team of researchers on a crash project to do just that.
His proposal is in limbo right now, as everyone waits to see if BP's new cap is capable of containing the spill entirely.
Nevertheless, Leifer also called on NOAA to release data more quickly. "If somebody is making some measurement somewhere, it is difficult for them to find out or to contact other people who are also making measurements to try to compare or discuss their understanding of what's happening," he said.
Indeed, he suggested that NOAA should serve as a clearinghouse of data from its own scientists and others.
By contrast, right now that duty is being taken up by other, more self-interested parties. "The best way to find out, ironically, what all the research is that's going on," Leifer said, are lists being compiled by law firms -- by plaintiffs' attorneys preparing to sue BP for damages in civil suit.
"There are some legal teams that have created extensive, detailed lists of exactly who's doing everything," Leifer said. "It's not possible from my knowledge to find that information from government sources in any easy fashion."
Meanwhile, the government is working alongside BP, which, as Leifer put it, "may want areas of non-knowledge."
Indeed, BP, which faces a potentially enormous per-barrel fine, has no incentive to measure the amount of oil leaked with any precision whatsoever. Nor does it have any desire for the public to become too acutely aware of the vast amounts of oil it has been able to keep largely hidden beneath the surface, in part due to its controversial use of dispersants.
Rick Steiner, a marine conservationist who studied the effect of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, sees NOAA's behavior as part of a larger trend. "It's my sense that all federal agencies are withholding information at this point on this spill, and this includes Coast Guard, EPA, Department of Interior, and certainly NOAA," he told the Huffington Post.
"And there's an overwhelming public interest that the public knows everything that the government knows about this at this point. So we need a new paradigm for how to handle public information in these sorts of disasters, and there's no better place to start than right here right now."
The last in a series of hurdles for data before NOAA lets it go public is for it to be "cleared" by the Joint Analysis Group (JAG), a multi-agency task force which a NOAA press release said "was established to facilitate cooperation and coordination among the best scientific minds across the government and provide a coordinated analysis of information related to subsea monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico."
That last part of the process alone can take several weeks. "There is definite recognition within the group that it is slow, and there is frustration that it is slow," said JAG member Rik Wanninkhof, a NOAA scientist at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami.
There are two paths NOAA data can take, he told HuffPost. One is "information that does go to the general public, and that is quite slow," and the other is "information that is for within NOAA, and that goes faster." The Coast Guard and BP also get the data right away.
Wanninkhof said the JAG's clearing process is important to assure that the data is accurate. But, he said, "it could be that we are erring to the side of caution." And, he said, it doesn't necessarily have to take quite this long.
"My feeling is it could be done faster, if fewer agencies were involved," he said. In addition to NOAA, the group includes representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House. BP is also there, providing "information coordination and synthesis."
There are two main goals when it comes to sub-surface testing. One is to get a better sense of how much oil has spilled; another is to get a better sense of what it's doing to sea life. When it comes to the latter, the key indicator involves oxygen levels, and the fear is that the oil will turn regions of the Gulf hypoxic, when means the water would have insufficient dissolved oxygen levels to sustain living aquatic organisms.
As it happens, the Northern Gulf already develops a large, hypoxic "dead zone" every summer, on account of all the nitrogen from sewage or fertilizer flowing down the Mississippi River.
Scientists testing for subsea oil have found depleted levels of oxygen, but the good news is that so far, none of them have come close to hypoxia, according to Wanninkhof -- who, unlike the rest of us, is seeing the raw data.
He warns that those levels could still go down, however, as microbes start to eat the oil in earnest, and in doing so deplete oxygen.
And Asper, the marine scientist from Southern Mississippi, warns that, at the depths where the plumes are mostly being found, even a slight reduction in oxygen could have serious and very long-lasting consequences.
"The water at great depths hasn't been on the surface in a long time," he said. "It's old water" that rose to the surface in Antarctica, perhaps hundreds of years ago, got chilled, and spread out along the ocean floor. Just as it hasn't seen the surface in a long time, Asper said, "this water that's down there won't get back to the surface of the ocean for probably hundreds of years longer."
So to the extent that oxygen levels there are depleted, he said, "it's quite likely that oxygen will stay low for a long time."
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Another factor at play when it comes to the dissemination of data is the apparent lack of clarity about the circumstances under which NOAA scientists are allowed to speak to the media.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a whisteblowers group, on Monday demanded that NOAA lift its "gag order muzzling NOAA scientists."
And some scientists contacted by HuffPost over the past few weeks have said they were explicitly told they could not talk to reporters without permission from NOAA's public affairs office. "That's what I've been told, that I'm supposed to direct any media contacts to the media," one scientist said on Monday.
But NOAA officials say that this is a misunderstanding of the actual rules. Although the wording of those rules -- which dates back to the Bush administration -- is ambiguous in places, Kenney, the NOAA spokesman, insisted that the policy "clearly states that NOAA's scientists are free to speak to the media."
NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco "has discussed the importance of open communication to employees on many occasions, including whenever she travels to our labs and science centers," Kenney wrote in an e-mail. "[T]his is central to who she is as a scientist and NOAA administrator."
Kenney did not indicate, however, that NOAA officials were planning to take any action to clear up was is evidently some continued confusion in the ranks. Wrote Kenney: "Could our media policy be communicated better? Sure, that is always possible. Could it be clearer? No."