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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The static kill is now underway. Late this afternoon, BP announced that it had begun pumping heavy drilling fluid into its ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The move comes after a daylong delay, and it's just the first in a series of steps meant to shut down the Macondo well for good. Engineers won't know for sure if the effort is successful until they finish drilling a relief well later this month.

NORRIS: Once the well is safely plugged, the federal government will shift its focus from the scale of the spill itself and stopping it to the scale of environmental damage it has caused. BP will be on the hook for that damage. But from wildlife to wetlands and everything in between, how do you quantify the harm caused by more than four million barrels of oil? Well, teams of state, federal and BP investigators are now trying to do just that, as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports from the wetlands south of New Orleans.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Biologist Rich Takacs and the rest of his team are heading out into the marshes to see just where BP oil has landed. Takacs shows me a map of where we're going.

Mr. RICH TAKACS (Restoration Specialist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): It's basically east of Grand Isle, almost due east.

SHOGREN: Takacs is a restoration specialist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mr. TAKACS: 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.

SHOGREN: And will this be used to help calculate the bill for BP?

Mr. TAKACS: In layman's terms, yes, it will be used to help calculate the bill for BP.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

SHOGREN: I'm trailing Takacs and his team on a boat with Tom Brosnan, who coordinates the damage assessment for NOAA.

Mr. TOM BROSNAN (Manager of the Northeast Atlantic/Great Lakes Branch of NOAA's Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program): We have teams all across five states now, doing this exact activity on a variety of types of shoreline. It could be wetlands. It could be mudflats, beaches.

SHOGREN: Other teams are inspecting coral reefs, oyster beds and deepwater habitats. They're combing beaches for dead birds and marine mammals and collecting oil-coated carcasses of endangered sea turtles.

Brosnan says once all the damages are calculated, the government will present BP a plan of restoration projects that are necessary to make up for what was destroyed by the oil. At that point, BP can do the restoration...

Mr. BROSNAN: ...or they can say, you know what, we don't want to implement these. We will pay you to implement these. And at that point, we can put a price tag on the restoration projects, so it can go either way.

SHOGREN: It's way too early to quantify what BP will owe, but there's no question that restoring marshes will be a big part of what the company will have to do to make amends. These coastal wetlands are really valuable. They protect people from hurricanes and stock the Gulf with seafood. Even before the spill, Louisiana was losing acres of wetlands every day.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

SHOGREN: We stop at one oiling stretch of marsh after another.

Mr. BOB NAILON (Associate and Senior Wetlands Scientist, ENTRIX): You've got live hermit crabs.

SHOGREN: Bob Nailon is a wetland scientist and a contractor for BP. Periwinkle dragonflies flit around him as he walks through thigh-high grass.

Mr. NAILON: We got a little band of oil that's kind of isolated. You can see it.

SHOGREN: He shouts his observations back to the rest of the team on the boat. Another team member hops out to help him measure how deep the oil goes into the marsh.

Mr. NAILON: Hold that out there to the edge of the bed. Yes sir, thank you. It's about 3.3 meters.

SHOGREN: We stop at other marshes that are covered with a lot more oil. Brosnan says it's important for the inspectors to figure out what condition the oil is in.

Mr. BROSNAN: Does it look relatively fresh? Is it sticky? You see him putting on gloves there. He's going to be touching the plants.

SHOGREN: If the oil comes off easily, that means it's weathered and less likely to kill the grasses than if it's really sticky. Nailon forces a stick into the soil.

Mr. BROSNAN: 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. And obviously, you can't see it in this muddy water, so they poke sticks down to see if you see a release of oil.

SHOGREN: 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 a plant.

(Soundbite of boat motor)

SHOGREN: Back at the marina, Takacs says the isolated pockets of oily wetlands that we saw were similar to what they've been seeing most days. He says that's 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.

Mr. TAKACS: When you add up all those small spots, it's going to be a very sizable amount.

SHOGREN: He says some of the marshes will recover, but BP will have to make up even for temporary impacts.

Mr. TAKACS: Because until the marsh is healthy again, it's not performing to it's full potential. There are other cases where the marsh has been injured to a point where the grasses probably will die, the marsh may even erode and disappear.

SHOGREN: BP contractor Bob Nailon is more optimistic. He says the best way for this ecology to mend is by leaving it alone.

Mr. NAILON: Mother Nature has a wonderful way of recovering from episodes like this, and it's not an end-of-the-world kind of thing.

SHOGREN: Government scientists agree with Nailon on the data they're collecting, but not necessarily on his rosy outlook. Up until now, the government and BP have been collaborating. But when the government gets closer to handing BP a tally of the restorations it must do, the costs likely will be immense and the arguments, furious.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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