Environmental risk expert Valerie Lee '75 testifies on 'human frailty' and the Gulf oil spill

Roll Call reported the June 15 congressional testimony of environmental risk assessment expert Valerie Ann Lee ’75, who discussed the challenges of measuring the impact of the Gulf oil spill.

Lee spoke about the massive gaps in the information that’s needed to predict the extent and trajectory of the spill and accurately conduct any kind of natural resource damage assessments.

Lee told the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife that “we are behind the curve in scientific knowledge of the ocean ecosystems and the species that live there and support our economy. We are playing catch-up. We are having on-the-job training in the worst of jobs.”

Lee was among panelists from academia, government, private industry and environmental groups who spoke before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The experts each addressed the oil spill in the context of “Ocean Science and Data Limits in a Time of Crisis: Do NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service Have the Resources to Respond?”

Lee, a Bates biology major who earned a master’s in civil engineering from MIT and J.D. from Yale, is executive vice president of Environment International Government and is the author of The Natural Resource Damage Assessment Deskbook.

She also told the subcommittee:

“The short answers…are that the resource needs are substantial and immediate. The data gaps are large. The amount of resources that have been brought to bear to consider the impacts of the oil spill in the marine environment, especially the subsurface environment, are inadequate to the task at hand.

“The paucity of data…derives from the human frailty of us all.”

“The reason for this is not for lack of interest on the part of the agencies, NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; it is for lack of technical and human resources. The paucity of data is created by financial constraints. It also derives from the human frailty of us all, whether we are members of the public, work for government or are employed by the private sector.

“Humans are not well-suited to understand the importance of what they cannot see and feel within their personal spheres, even if the threats are large and real. The world beneath the surface of the ocean is beyond our view. Its importance has not been recognized in the way that it should have been by all of us.

“For these reasons, we are behind the curve in scientific knowledge of the ocean ecosystems and the species that live there and support our economy. The agencies tasked with studying natural resource injuries and restoring injuries when they happen do not have procedures and integrated approaches to address subsurface spills involving the deep-sea environment.

“The law fails us as a mechanism for truly meaningful reparation for the sea.”

“Measured by environmental injury and economic losses — what we in the trade call lost human uses — this is the largest natural resource damage case that this country has ever seen and, I hope, the world will not see one again. Damages are in the billions.

“We are off-page and out of the book. With an ongoing spill of this size and severity, the law fails us as a mechanism for truly meaningful reparation for the sea, the marine ecosystem and the species that are a part of it, and the Gulf Coast economy supported by it. The law cannot achieve a compensation to make the public truly whole. The fundamentals of science are the only real means to achieve an outcome for this spill and to ensure that others do not ever place our regional economies and ecosystems supported by them in danger.”

View the entire testimony of Valerie Lee ’75, June 15, 2010.

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