By Douglas J. Meffert, David Muth and Steve Cochran It’s been five years since images of oil-soaked pelicans, dead turtles and contaminated shorelines along the Gulf Coast shocked our national consciousness. Half a decade after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and unleashing the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history, BP would like you to believe that everything is back to normal along the Gulf Coast. In reality, BP has not yet truly accepted responsibility for the enormity of the damages it caused. Its recent Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration report states that “most environmental impact from the accident was limited in duration and geography, and the natural resources that were affected are rebounding.” The scientific authority on the spill – the trustees of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, said this in response: “BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn’t support its claims.” In this battle of PRs – public relations vs. peer-reviewed science, we side with science.
As leaders in national environmental organizations working with local partners to address Louisiana’s land loss crisis, here’s the reality. We’re still seeing persistent re-oiling of habitats like barrier islands and nesting habitats along Louisiana’s coast. The day after BP released its report, a 25,000 pound tar mat of BP oil was found on a Louisiana barrier island. Up to 10 million gallons of oil were recently discovered on the Gulf floor, creating a “bathtub ring” of oil the size of Rhode Island around the site of the disaster. Ongoing effects to wildlife persist: dolphins in badly-oiled Barataria Bay are dying at a rate four times higher than normal; fish such as mahimahi hatched in oiled areas have reduced swimming abilities; an estimated 800,000 birds died as a result of the disaster. And the spill worsened land loss in areas that received heavy oil, a continued blow as Louisiana confronts having lost 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s — an area the size of Delaware. Louisiana may be the state most directly impacted, but the situation we face is an American crisis. The area in Louisiana known as the Mississippi River Delta houses our nation’s most critical energy infrastructure, largest ports, busiest shipping corridors and leading commercial seafood producers – not to mention being home to 2 million people and countless birds, fish and other wildlife. America is stronger both economically and ecologically when the Gulf is stronger. Despite the extremely high stakes, BP’s continued use of misinformation, stall tactics, publicity campaigns and legal maneuvering means our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save this precious region could be lost.
Still, we remain optimistic. In the aftermath of the oil spill, we worked with leaders at the state and federal levels to pass the RESTORE Act, ensuring that 80 percent of civil Clean Water Act penalties from the oil spill will go to the Gulf Coast states for restoration. This funding coupled with Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan — a one-of-a-kind blueprint for restoring the Mississippi River Delta through a series of comprehensive, science-based solutions — means we have significant tools to provide protection for people, wildlife and habitats. The state is already implementing projects that can begin to ensure lasting, sustainable restoration for this incredibly important region. However, Louisiana can’t do it alone.
On this landmark anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster, we urge our leaders to make comprehensive and lasting Gulf Coast restoration a priority for the benefit of millions of Americans and for generations to come. We applaud the efforts of the Department of Justice to hold BP accountable — and we ask that they continue to do so. As we await the ruling from the third and final phase of the civil trial, it’s time for BP to stop stalling and accept full responsibility, so that the Gulf can heal and long term restoration can move ahead.
We also ask the RESTORE Council, overseer of funds from the RESTORE Act, to ensure that projects truly geared toward Gulf-wide, lasting restoration are funded and that work begins immediately. We need our leaders to make good on their promises to see restoration through, by ensuring that the RESTORE Council funds its initial funded priority projects list and updates its comprehensive plan. Additionally, our campaign has worked with citizens and policymakers across Louisiana to identify 19 priority projects, all in Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, that we believe deserve prioritization because they have the most potential to achieve lasting restoration.
We all have an urgent calling to save the Mississippi River Delta, one of America’s greatest national treasures. Yet despite BP’s claims, five years later, we have a long way to go before the Gulf is back to normal and meaningful restoration is achieved. On the anniversary of one of the most destructive environmental catastrophes in recent history, we ask the American people and our leaders to not be distracted by PR, to stay the course and to make comprehensive Gulf restoration a priority for America.
Douglas J. Meffert is vice president and executive director of Audubon Louisiana; David Muth, is the director, Gulf Restoration, of the National Wildlife Federation; and Steve Cochran, is director, Mississippi River Delta Restoration, of the Environmental Defense Fund.
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