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A pragmatic approach for establishing natural resource damage assessment baseline

Denise Kay,
Denise Kay, PhD

Establishing an ecological baseline for restoration and natural resource damage assessment from a spill event can be very different from establishing a baseline for a CERCLA site. OBG’s Denise Kay, PhD recently discussed these differences, as well as the benefits of using a pragmatic approach, at the Law Seminars International Seventh Annual Advanced Conference on Natural Resource Damages.

Natural resources, such as waterways, wetlands, and wildlife, that are injured from releases of hazardous substances or oil need to be restored, with the public compensated for their loss. Natural resource damages (or NRD) are quantified relative to their “baseline”—or the condition they would have been in if the release did not occur. While damages are determined by government agencies, giving a value to natural resources poses many challenges including establishing baseline.

OPA vs. CERCLA sites

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) governs oil pollution liability and compensation, while the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) addresses releases of hazardous substances that could harm human health or the environment.

For oil spill events impacting a small space, nearby habitats can often be used for baseline comparisons. For a larger event, such as oil dispersion at sea, shoreline habitats can be measured where the oil is anticipated to impact, before it actually does. Since spills are current events, information based on modern technologies like satellite imagery, environmental monitoring programs, and other sources of big data can also be incorporated.

CERCLA sites, on the other hand, are often impacted by legacy contamination that has been there for decades. Baselines for these sites require a historical perspective, often challenged by determining an appropriate timeframe for the baseline and understanding the ecosystem and other potential contaminants from that time.

For both OPA and CERCLA sites, establishing a baseline can be a prolonged exercise in calculations and communication—at times, baselines may include calculations understood by only a few practitioners. In addition it can be difficult to justify discounted ecological service acre-years (DSAY) costs (which define projects in terms of the acreage of habitat injured or benefited) to financial decision makers.

Adjusting your perspective can ease the pain of baseline establishment

At any site, the baseline process can become more complex than necessary, and benefit from constraints using practical considerations. To adjust from a traditional perspective, begin with a top-level assessment that asks if a class of resources has been affected. If yes, instead of moving directly to baseline calculations, follow with a discussion of what is possible for restoration opportunities. This discussion can inform the final questions of what level of detail is needed to quantify the baseline, and what ecological processes need to be understood. These questions can guide, and often constrain, the extent of baseline evaluations.

Learn more in the presentation Denise gave at the Law Seminars International Seventh Annual Advanced Conference on Natural Resource Damages on March 1-2, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Baseline: new opportunities with a pragmatic approach

About Denise Kay, PhD: Denise, Technical Director for toxicology at OBG, has extensive experience with injury assessment and trustee negotiation. Her applied project knowledge with organic and inorganic contaminant investigations in aquatic and terrestrial environments informs rapid initial assessments and efficient information gathering. Denise has authored more than 30 peer-reviewed published journal articles on topics of wildlife chemical exposure, food-chain transfer, environmental toxicology, contaminant absorption, and bioavailability, which support her abilities as a credible scientific client advocate in NRD communications and negotiations.

Denise can be contacted at: Denise.Kay@obg.com