BP Wins Right to Scientists' Oil Spill E-mails

Spillover. BP has won the right to see internal documents from academic researchers who worked on estimating the size of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which left seaweed and other marine organisms soaked in oil.

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

After a legal battle that they ultimately lost, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts have handed over some 3000 internal documents to oil giant BP. The release, which involves documents and e-mails focused on estimating the size of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, occurred on 1 June as part of a massive federal government lawsuit against BP. The scientists are not party to that negligence suit, which seeks to determine how much in water pollution fines BP will pay for the spill, but they have become caught in the crossfire.

In an op-ed published yesterday in the Boston Globe, WHOI scientists Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli call BP's documents-request an "invasion of privacy" and an "erosion of the scientific deliberative process":

We are accused of no crimes, nor are we party to the lawsuit. We are two scientists at an academic research institution who responded to requests for help from BP and government officials at a time of crisis.

The scientists fear that:

Incomplete thoughts and half-finished documents attached to e-mails can be taken out of context and impugned by people who have a motive for discrediting the findings.

In addition to obscuring true scientific findings, this situation casts a chill over the scientific process. In future crises, scientists may censor or avoid deliberations, and more importantly, be reluctant to volunteer valuable expertise and technology that emergency responders don't possess. Open, scientific deliberation is critical to science.

A spokesperson for BP declined to comment on the Boston Globe article.

The 8 June issue of Science, which will appear online on Thursday, will have an in-depth look at the story.