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Natural Resource Damage Assessment

As 1996 rapidly approaches, conservationists are taking comfort in the fact that OPA 90 regulations will soon pack an official punch. While shipbuilders, shipowners and operators indeed, the maritime industry at large — rush to make adjustments in preparation for OPA compliance, National Oceanjt and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials are stjtKbusy hashing out a definitive natural resource damage >^assessment (NRDA) policy.

Towards the OPA ig the enfr With an ends 90 goal of ma]j public and tasked witJ standards for rehabiliation, amenr . has been le development of the restoration, replacement or acquisition of equivalent natural resources and services in oil spill disaster areas. A deadline of December 31 has been set for the release of final NRDA guidelines, and the agency is in the process of reforming 1994's rejected standards in favor of a policy that emphasizes environmental restoration and compensable value, as opposed to a concentration on specific damage components. — example, according toJJhr^f"1995 standards currently pending approval, in tije^dise of damage to a virtually irreparable resource such as a coral reef, funds would be Srted to other environmental projects in the reef area in order to compensate for overall loss while the reef naturally regenerated over time; or monies paid by responsible parties would be contributed to separate development projects of equal value.

Pushing The Crisis ButtSl _ So what happens when there's a spill? According to Doug Helton, oil spill coordinator at NOAA's Damage Assessment Center, under OPA regulations, not all spills call for the agency to perform a damage assessment, a fact sometimes overlooked by shipowners and operators in their scramble to minimize liability and the impact of damages incurred by cargo leakage. In fact, NOAA's responsibility as a trustee an agency responsible for enforgjag'fules — demands inter- Elon in an extremely small amount of cases. "Right now," said Mr. Helton, "our agency addresses one percent of the spill cases in the U.S. ... The first step is deciding whether the agency should bring to bear this (OPA 90-mandated) process." In a presentation given on October 27 at the N.Y. Port Demonstration held at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Mr. Helton explained the process by which NOAA officials perform damage assessments, which take place after determination that Department of station involvement is tan- I IIIIIIIIIII lii llii'I II III|iiliiiii of a particular crisis, usuallyinvolving more than 10,000 gallons of spillage.

Executing A Damage Assessment The NOAA's trusteeship of natural resources includes providing protection for shorelines and shoreline vegetation, oceans, intertidal resources, coral reefs, and wildlife. When a spill within the realm of OPA rules occurs, the preassessment or damage scoping process involves determining whether injuries incurred to these or other natural resources are directly related to the cargo leakage. This can be tricky in well-trafficked areas such as the Port of N.Y./N.J. As explained by Mr. Helton, "The big issue here is causation; did the injury here result from this incident?" In the case of the Valdez, more than $100 million was spent on studies merely assessing damages.

After establishing causation, the NOAA proceeds to the restoration planning stage, demonstrating to the partff involved that its vessel le damages, and that it is responsible for participating in the restoration of the affected environs. In order to acheive this means, the agency uses evidence collected from examination of the habitat quality of underwater and nearby structures as well as news of beach closings that correspond with the spill location and time frame of the incident.

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