Laurie Macdonald, Florida Program Director
This Saturday, April 20th, will mark the third anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. By Earth Day 2010, we had learned the terrible news that 11 men had died in an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and we hoped an environmental crisis was not going to follow.
But follow it did. Over 200 million gallons of oil spewed from a failed drilling operation nearly a mile below the ocean surface: hot, highly pressurized petroleum hydrocarbons that had been stewing for millions of years. In the days that turned into months of frantic work to seal the well, the oil and attempts to contain it caused direct and long term damage to wildlife and their habitat, including an unknown number of deaths.
How can there be restitution for such an assault on the precious and extensive resources of the Gulf? How can the environmental losses be restored and the related economic losses be compensated? Sea turtles, whales and dolphins surfacing to breathe and sea birds resting or diving into the ocean were covered with oil. Seahorses and juvenile sea turtles living in the floating sargassum seaweed mats were killed when the mats were showered with dispersants and burned. Below the surface, deep sea coral colonies and shallow seagrass beds died due to the toxic combination of dispersants and oil. And on the beach, shorebird nests and chicks were trampled and scraped away by uninformed workers during cleanup operations, while heavy equipment and lights disturbed and harmed wildlife. Every part of the Gulf was affected by the spill, from its shores to the sea floor. People dependent upon marine resources, from shrimpers to hotel and restaurant owners, lost significant livelihood, and some of those living along the affected areas suffer ongoing illnesses.
A complex combination of legislation and lawsuits is causing the responsible parties, British Petroleum (BP) and others, to pay significant costs and fines. Penalties under the RESTORE Act passed by Congress on June 29, 2012 will make $4 billion available for restoration and improvement of the Gulf and for the people that suffered losses due to the spill. The RESTORE Act ensures that 80 percent of Deepwater Horizon civil and administrative penalties under the Clean Water Act will go to Gulf Coast restoration, and sets up a framework that can ensure coordination between the Gulf States and the Federal government.
Defenders’ Florida Representative Elizabeth Fleming and I recently attended a public meeting of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which is evaluating which projects are most important to fund. The meeting was held to listen to information from the public about what actions we believed would be of the greatest benefit to the Gulf.
On behalf of Defenders, I presented a report that we produced with the National Wildlife Refuge Association that describes tracts of conservation land along the Gulf Coast and connections inland that should be acquired and added to the refuge system. This will protect wildlife habitat and help wildlife adapt to the impacts we are experiencing as a result of climate change and sea level rise. Examples include expanding the Gulf Islands National Seashore to protect sea turtle nesting beaches as well as people’s access to the coastline, and adding to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to complete the ocean-to-inland connection that wildlife will need to rely on as they adapt to climate change.
I pointed out three principles that I think should guide the decisions on how to spend the restoration funds. First, all projects, including those not focused on the environment (boat ramps and the like) must result in ecosystem benefits. Second, all projects should also take climate change and sea level rise into consideration. And lastly, the most important action we can take is to acquire valuable conservation areas that add to our system of natural resource lands and wildlife habitat.
Author Carl Safina in his book “A Sea in Flames,” closes with an observation on northern gannets — large, shining white seabirds that migrate from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter. Gannets dive for their prey and so they are directly affected by oil adhering to their bodies and by eating contaminated fish. Safina remarks that the first oiled bird whose image was in the news during the Gulf oil disaster was a gannet, and that seabird biologists speculated that up to a third of the population would be affected. The gannet already faces a host of threats near its breeding grounds, and is now suffering the impacts of the oil spill even 2,000 miles away, where it spends the off-season.
It is clear that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will continue to affect wildlife and habitat for years to come. Our job now is to help our damaged Gulf regain its health with carefully planned, enduring restoration work.