"Since the gulf oil spill first began gushing on April 20, Linda Hooper-Bui’s research group has repeatedly run up against the authorities. In May, a Fish and Wildlife Service officer confiscated insect samples that one of Hooper-Bui’s students had been collecting on a publicly accessible beach in southern Alabama. On research trips in Louisiana, her students have been stopped by sheriff’s deputies—one time after driving 150 miles—simply for attempting to study the ecological impact of oil and dispersants. Time and again, they were told that they couldn’t access their normal research sites unless they were working for BP or the government.
Four months since the Deepwater Horizon met its fiery demise, and five weeks since the oil flow was stopped, virtually all the fundamental questions about the oil’s long-term ecological impact remain unanswered. Studying such a complex event takes time even in the best of cases. BP and the government, gearing up for a potential court battle over how much the oil company will have to pay in fines and for restoration, are hiring researchers to find answers, but those who are trying to remain independent, like Hooper-Bui, are being caught in a hard place. They are outside the official Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, but often without sufficient funding—or in some cases access—to conduct the research they believe is needed. At stake is the rigor and comprehensiveness of the data that will inform our ultimate understanding of the spill’s effects, and most important, that will determine how risks of future spills could be reduced and responses improved."