Whenever the drama ends at BP's Macondo well, the company still will be on the hook for the environmental harm from the spill, and teams of state, federal and BP scientists are meticulously gathering data about where the oil is landing.
Their goal is to figure out what restoration projects might be needed to make up for all the damage the oil is causing. Then the government will present BP with a plan of what projects are necessary. BP can do the restorations itself, or it can ask the government to handle them.
"At that point, we put a price tag on the restoration projects," says Tom Brosnan, the coordinator of NOAA's damage assessment. "So it can go either way."
Damage assessment teams are gathering data across five states in wetlands and on mud flats and beaches. Other teams are inspecting coral reefs, oyster beds and deeper water habitats. They're combing beaches for dead birds and marine mammals, and collecting oil-coated carcasses of endangered sea turtles.
BP and government officials are collaborating well now, but already there are hints of disputes to come after the government hands BP a tally of expensive restoration projects. For instance, BP contractor Bob Nailon says the best way for the marsh ecology to mend is by leaving it alone.
Nailon is the BP representative on a team that has been painstakingly documenting where the oil lands in the marshes south of New Orleans. He and his government teammates agree on the data they're collecting, but not necessarily on the outcome for the marshes.
It's way too early to quantify what BP will owe, but restoring marshes will be a central part of what the company will have to do to make amends. Coastal wetlands are especially valuable because they protect people from hurricanes and stock the Gulf with seafood. Even before the spill, Louisiana was losing acres of wetlands every day.
"How much marsh was injured and what was that injury -- that's the really big question, and if we don't have a gauge of that all along the way, we won't be able to come up with that total picture," says Rich Takacs, a restoration specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is the government's representative on Nailon's team.
A Hands-On Job
On a recent day when the heat index is 110 degrees, Takacs, Nailon and a Louisiana state representative stop in one oily stretch of marsh after another due east of Grand Isle.
"You've got live hermit crabs," Nailon shouts out to his teammates on the boat.
Periwinkle dragonflies flit around Nailon as a teammate measures oil stains in the thigh-high grass of one marsh.
It's a tactile job. Nailon, who wears gloves, touches the oil on the plants and sticks his fingers into the sediment. The fresher the oil, the stickier it is -- and the more likely to cause damage.
Nailon also pushes a stick into the soil.
"The reason he's doing that is sometimes the oil gets buried, or sometimes it might be on the surface of the sediment down below. Obviously you can't see it in this muddy water, so they poke sticks down to see if you see a release of oil," says the NOAA's Brosnan, who observes the team from his own boat.
That's important because if the oil soaks into the soil, it's more likely to kill grasses than if it just stains part of the plant.
After days of doing inspections like these, Takacs says much of the marshes have been spared oil, but the team is finding lots of isolated pockets of oily wetlands. He says that's apparently because the BP oil that comes ashore when the water is high has been staying in clumpy masses that settle down on the marshes when the high water recedes.
"When you add up all those small spots, it's going to be a very sizable amount," Takacs says.
Besides, he adds, the worst may be yet to come.
"We don't even know if the bulk of the injury has occurred yet. There's still an awful lot of oil offshore," says Takacs.
Takacs predicts that some of the marshes will recover, but BP will be responsible to make up even for temporary impacts.
"Because until the marsh is healthy again, it's not performing to its full potential. There are other cases where the marsh has been injured to the point where the grasses probably will die -- the marsh may even erode and disappear," Takacs says.
BP's Nailon is more optimistic.
"Mother Nature has a wonderful way of recovering from episodes like this, and it's not an-end-of-the-world kind of thing," says Nailon, a wetlands scientist.