Scientists Call for Full Disclosure of Gulf Oil Disaster Data, End of Confidentiality Agreements

Letter presses for release of wildlife impacts in conjunction with FOIA request on bird deaths

08-04-2010 // Max Greenberg
Technician collecting an oil sample

Since the Gulf oil spill began more than three months ago, National Wildlife Federation has taken the lead in pushing for more transparency from BP and the federal government, whether for accurate spill estimates or complete information on oil dispersants.

Now, NWF is asking for information on the spill's effect on wildlife collected as part of the the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process--and fighting for scientists' right to report what they know already.

In an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and BP CEO Robert Dudley, nine prominent scientists and marine researchers expressed concern over reports that BP is asking scientists to sign confidentiality agreements in connection with findings related to the Gulf oil spill, and asked for "full and prompt" release of information assessing the damage with a special emphasis on "key data relating to wildlife mortality and injury."

"We are greatly concerned with reports that BP is requiring confidentiality agreements in research contracts with scientists, which would preclude them from releasing any of their findings for a three year period," the letter said. "Failure to disclose this scientific information in a timely manner hides critically important information from the public -- the owners of the natural resources at risk."

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"Just as the unprecedented use of dispersants has served to sweep millions of gallons of oil under the rug, we're concerned the public may not get to see critical scientific data until BP has long since declared its responsibility over," added Dr. Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate director for wildlife conservation and global warming, and one of the letter's signers. "Reported three-year confidentiality agreements in contracts between BP and researchers makes transparency that much more imperative to avoid perceived conflicts of interest or allegations of obfuscation. Do we really want scientists forced to choose who to share their data with – BP or the public?"

The National Wildlife Federation also filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for documents and data related to bird deaths in the Gulf of Mexico.

The NRDA, instituted after the Exxon Valdez spill as part of the Oil Pollution Act, is the basis for ensuring that the party responsible pays for the restoration of damaged natural resources in the event of an oil spill. NOAA's Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DAARP) program is tasked with studying and evaluating the extent of the resource damage. To do this, it depends on the cooperation and full transparency of responsible parties to gauge destruction and "resolve natural resource liability."

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig first went down in April, releasing a stream of oil into the waters off the Mississippi River Delta, that has not always been easy--and the information collected has not always found its way to the public at large.

"It is clear that both BP and the federal government have a scientific, legal, and moral obligation to release information collected in the Natural Resources Damage Assessment and related investigations," the letter said.

“From day one, BP has been sluggish and selective in releasing vital environmental data. BP needs to open the books on everything, no exceptions. And the Obama administration needs to do a better job enforcing the directive it issued requiring BP to make data public,” said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. “BP is mounting a PR campaign suggesting that the environmental damage of the spill is over when we know that they have dumped millions of gallons of toxic dispersants to sink the oil out of sight, turning the Gulf into a toxic chemistry experiment.”

The scientists signing the letter (PDF) are:

  • Doug Inkley, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, National Wildlife Federation 
  • Bruce Stein, Ph.D., Associate Director, Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming, National Wildlife Federation
  • Francesca Grifo, Ph.D., Senior Scientist and Director, Scientific Integrity Campaign, Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Joel Kostka, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Oceanography at Florida State University
  • Ian MacDonald, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Oceanography at Florida State University
  • Fiorenza Micheli, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Sciences, Marine Community Ecology, Stanford University
  • Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors
  • Barry R. Noon, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, Colorado State
  • Carl Safina, Ph.D., President and Cofounder, Blue Ocean Institute


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