+ BP, the federal government, and people who want to sue BP will argue today before a panel of federal judges over where the lawsuits should be heard. Victims want the cases decided to close the spill, but BP wants them heard in oil-friendly Houston.

+ Internal messages show that BP lawyers fear the company could be accused of “gross negligence.”

+ A BP-appointed scientist, who was also appointed by Exxon in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, says the spill’s environmental impact could be “quite small.”

+ Several reports released yesterday suggest that the economic fallout for Florida is likely to be severe, especially in the tourism sector (more after the jump).

+ Denying that the oil spill, which may be the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, was anything like the “mega-disaster” Americans have been seeing on television, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said the damage to his state has been “more fiscal than physical.”

+ That comments echoes remarks made by Gov. Crist’s Gulf Oil Spill Recovery Task Force, which lamented the drop in demand for gulf seafood (and mulled Wal-Mart’s removal of fresh seafood from its shelves), a decline was driven more by perception than legitimate safety concerns, during its meeting yesterday.

+ The panel discussed ways to improve the image of Florida seafood. Tourism officials hope Barack Obama can do the same for the state’s beaches by taking a swim in the gulf.

+ Attorney General Bill McCollum has opened two investigations into companies suspected of offering fraudulent “free” training to would-be cleanup workers.

+ Have you filed a claim with BP? Talk to ProPublica.

NWF: “Disasters are just a normal part of doing business for these oil companies.”

Spill weighs on Florida’s economy
Two reports released yesterday paint a grim picture of Florida’s economic outlook — and suggest that the oil spill is partially to blame.

The Federal Reserve released its latest “Beige Book,” a sector-by-sector analysis of each region’s economy. The Atlanta Fed, whose region includes Florida, notes that tourism is picking up “in most District destinations except for the Gulf coast where significant concerns were reported over the oil spill.”

Meanwhile, the University of Florida’s Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies released its quarterly survey of markets around the state, which finds that it’s been a cruel summer for real estate.

“The devastating effect of the spill on the Panhandle’s economy has created a giant cloud of uncertainty,” says the center’s director, Timothy Becker, though he does note that high unemployment remains the biggest drag on property markets.

Research isn’t free
Nature addresses accusations that BP has been “gagging” gulf scientists who get funding to study the spill, and expresses concern for the academic freedom of spill research.

But researchers in the Gulf of Mexico region describe a more complex situation. Scientists, they say, are being trapped in the middle of a scramble by BP and the federal government to round up expert witnesses. The rush is being driven by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), a process defined by US federal law, in which those responsible for the spill, along with state and federal agencies, collect data to assess the environmental impact of the accident. Government agencies typically rely on their own scientists, whereas responsible parties consult with firms that have in-house scientific expertise, says Michael Wascom, a coastal and ocean management lawyer at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. The size of this spill is unprecedented, however, so academic scientists are increasingly being called on.

Marine toxicologist Riki Ott says that lawyers tend to drive the scientific process in the wake of ecological disasters. Companies like BP hire scientists to defend them against claims they caused ecological harm, while lawyers seek experts to help document damage, focusing on large animals and economically important resources. Funding for impartial studies that address things like long-term ecosystem effects is often harder to come by.

Several scientists contacted by Nature say the episode highlights the lack of spill-research funding that is independent of the NRDA. “We need to get information debated within the scientific literature,” says [Florida State University oceanographer Ian] MacDonald.

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