One year after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Gulf Coast has dropped out of the headlines. As I was walking recently with a reporter along the beach of an eroding island in the vast Gulf of Mexico, the waters were as clear as the skies, leaving little evidence that the nation’s worst accidental oil release had happened nearby.
It was like being at a crime scene with few traces of the crime to be seen. We found some tar balls sitting in the sand like rotting pies, a dead catfish here, a dead shark there. But there was no chalk outline of the massive spread of oil that lay on the Gulf waters not long ago. There were no tombstones for the thousands of marine species and wildlife that became casualties of the disaster. We weren’t looking for that, though.
Our bigger concern was what could not be seen. The fact that BP cleared away oil from the surface is deceiving; the remnants still lurk below the surface. As we walked, we knew the vast stretches of water around us were areas where wetlands and marshes continue to shrink.
The hundreds of reporters who descended on the Gulf last summer to tell the story of the disaster have cleared out. But there’s a new, darker meaning to the phrase “the coast is clear.” Coastal land loss has plagued the Gulf for decades — long before the BP disaster — making more vulnerable the fish, shrimp, crabs and birds on which the Gulf Coast’s tourism and economy depend. This also exposes Gulf Coast families to higher poverty and despair.
Much as the Katrina floods compelled America to pay attention to the decades of neglect and economic inequality in New Orleans, the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout brought into focus the legacy of degradation and pollution that has troubled Gulf waters for generations. The rotten-pie tar balls dotting the beaches are just another of many entries in a history of injuries.
America can’t afford to keep the Gulf on injured reserve for too long, though. The Gulf Coast supports a $34 billion tourism industry and supplies the nation with 40 percent of its seafood. This is a working coast of fishermen, energy producers, restaurant owners, hotel managers, shipbuilders and tour guides. The Gulf generates a gross domestic product output of $2.3 trillion each year and employs more than 20 million people.