Post-Oil Spill Recovery: Who Benefits?

This week, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus released his plan for coastal-restoration efforts, which includes a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund to pay for the cleanup. Progress, right? Maybe. And maybe not.

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On Tuesday the Obama administration cheered the release of the Long Term Gulf Coast Restoration Support Plan authored by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. The 130-page document asks that Congress apply the bulk of civil penalties and fines imposed on BP for its Clean Water Act violations toward a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund that would pay for coastal-restoration efforts. President Barack Obama has granted his blessing to the plan, which, according to Mabus, "is the result of listening to the people of the Gulf Coast."

But there are already questions about exactly which people he was listening to. One of the most crucial components of the plan -- and the part that will be most closely watched -- is the establishment of a Gulf Coast Recovery Council, which would manage the Recovery Fund. This will be a much-watched-over group, not just because of the money it protects but also because of the president- and governor-appointed members who populate it. The plan makes a rather ancillary call for citizen stakeholders to be a part of the council, but without any language that really mandates this.

Literally hundreds of grass-roots and advocacy organizations from Alabama through Texas have worked from Day 1 of the spill to provide claims-application help; language-barrier assistance; personal protective equipment for cleanup work; grants for small businesses and fishers to stay afloat; and more. And they've also worked to ensure that citizens' and workers' voices are heard before any policy proposals came down from state and federal government.

Yet despite Mabus' statement, many of these organizations are saying that the plan, while an important step forward, does not address the concerns of all Gulf Coast residents. Besides a lack of language about specific strategies for implementing citizen participation in the planning process, Mabus' plan does little to show strategic targeting of coastal communities that continue to be hit the hardest by disasters.

“We believe this plan does not give those communities most vulnerable to disaster, be it an oil spill or a deadly hurricane, a voice in the decision-making process," says Patty Whitney of the Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing nonprofit out of Thibodaux, La.

“We're encouraged by Sec. Mabus' plan to jump-start the recovery through developing partnerships with Gulf Coast communities to address our most pressing challenges," says Latosha Brown, executive director of the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health. However, Brown says, "it is critical that community and faith-based nonprofit leaders and local philanthropic organizations, the true social innovators in the face of adversity along the Gulf in recent years, be involved in the decision-making process every step of the way to ensure new federal and private resources can best meet the needs of our coastal communities."

With regard to the Gulf Coast Recovery Council, the plan calls for some of the council members to be from federally recognized Native American tribes. But one of the tribes that has been the most heavily affected by the spill is the United Houma Nation, which is not federally recognized, though it is by the state of Louisiana. The Houmas have been some of the most aggressively active and highly organized communities in the Gulf Coast in terms of fighting for equity-based recovery, and probably deserve representation on the council. Disasters from Katrina to BP have ravaged their people, whether the federal government recognizes them or not, and so they should have inclusion all the same.

The council also has to be approved by a Congress that has found few reasons to get along these days, meaning a possibly hyperpartisan battle among states that vote mostly red. President Obama has said that he will appoint a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force by executive order in the meantime, headed by Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, which is a good sign.

Jackson's EPA, while somewhat bullied by BP, has been the most responsive to communities' concerns, especially with regard to environmental justice. She convened a meeting with Obama's cabinet last week for a renewal of vows to Executive Order 12898, which mandates that the federal government incorporate environmental-justice concerns into all of its policies.

Doing that means placing a high premium on citizen input. If the Gulf Coast Task Force needs a road map for that, they need look no further than how the Exxon Valdez oil spill near Alaska was handled. In the years both during and after the 1989 spill, public participation was aggressively integrated through planning processes, and Citizens' Advisory councils were created to make sure that policies wouldn't fall in the hands of industry and government officials who had grown too cozy with each other.

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