GALVESTON — Sometime after the March 22 oil spill is declared contained, a team representing several federal and state agencies will decide whether the event warrants a full Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Such assessments, which typically take about three years to complete, try to determine the type and amount of restoration needed to compensate the public for harm to natural resources and their human uses that occur as a result of an oil spill, said Tom Brosnan, an environmental scientist and communications manager in the Assessment and Restoration Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Once the extent of the public damage is determined, NOAA and others can draft a detailed plan to restore the lost resources and identify parties responsible for paying for the restoration.

The three-step NRDA process begins with a pre-assessment, which has been underway since just after an oil barge and a cargo ship collided in Galveston Bay releasing more than 168,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, Brosnan said.

Teams with members from NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several state agencies are conducting the pre-assessment, he said.

“In the pre-assessment phase, we start to get our arms around the magnitude of the event,” Brosnan said.

The pre-assesment takes into account more than simply how much oil was spilled, he said. It considers the likely damage by the spill to such things as fish and other marine life, birds and wetlands and how that damage might impair the public’s use of those natural resources, he said.    

For example, if fish populations are diminished, then the public’s use of that resource through recreational and commercial fishing is diminished and the public is due compensation. If birds are killed, public use of that resource through birding is diminished.

During the pre-assessment, teams take various environmental samples and may use mathematical models to help predict the fate and effects of the spill on the public’s natural resources, according to NOAA documents.

The pre-assessment can take weeks to complete and won’t be final before the initial oil spill response is done, officials said.

“We are in the very, very early stages of this — it’s an evolving spill; it’s still moving around,” Brosnan said.

The pre-assessment ends when NOAA and its state and federal partners decide whether an event warrants a full Natural Resource Damage Assessmentprocess, Brosnan said.

If the answer is “yes,” the second phase of the process — restoration planning — begins, he said.

“This entails further and more detailed study, including field and lab work and mathematical modeling to determine things like how many acres of wetland, how many fish, how many birds,” Brosnan said.   

The injury assessment takes into account both biological and economic damage caused by a spill to public resources, according to NOAA documents.

“At the same time, we start down a path of true restoration planning — here’s what we think is the best way to restore this oiled marsh or this type of oiled bird or these oyster beds,” Brosnan said.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees are required to draft a plan for implementing the restoration and to seek public comment about the plan, according to NOAA documents.

The final step in the process is to implement and monitor effectiveness of the restoration plan. It also includes identifying parties responsible for paying for the assessment, for the restoration planning and for implementing the restoration plan, according to NOAA documents.

“This is not meant to be a punitive action,” Brosnan said. “We quantify the loss and go to the responsible party and say ‘Here is what we think you owe the public.’

“They can either implement the restoration themselves, have us do it and pay for the restoration or they can refuse to do either, in which case we can go to court and perhaps come out with some damages.”

Contact Associate Editor Michael A. Smith at 409-683-5206 or michael.smith@galvnews.com.

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