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.
In March we made multiple trips to the Pointe a la Hache marina in Plaquemines Parish, La., to check in on the oystermen still looking for recovery. A couple of years ago, the marina would have been filled with dozens of oyster boats, many of them from the nearby historically black communities of Pointe a la Hache, Phoenix and Davent. Last year, right after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded — which was just before oyster and shrimp season was scheduled to start — you could already see the boat density in the marina thinning out. This year, we saw see three, maybe four, boats during each visit.
Byron Encalade, a leading advocate of oystermen in the state, says that poorly targeted government policies have failed to protect these workers' families and their way of life. With hundreds of oil rigs, wells, refineries and natural-gas pipelines embroidered across the same Gulf where these oystermen make their living, there is always the risk of an accident or a catastrophe that will ruin their lives temporarily — if not permanently.
Encalade talked about how fishermen and the oil and gas industries have co-existed for decades, with faith that both would work safely and responsibly. But with many of the fishermen in his neighborhood and across the Gulf Coast believing that BP has failed to adequately compensate them, Encalade's faith appears to be eroding as fast as the wetlands. For years, he has watched oysters die off from overpowering freshwater diversions and overfishing. "We don't have degrees in marine biology down here, but we see what's happening," Encalade told us.
The Gulf needs long-term restoration, but BP and the government should also address the immediate needs of Gulf citizens. That includes monitoring citizens' health for exposure to oil and dispersants, making sure that those who suffered economic losses are made whole through the claims process and ensuring that seafood remains safe and sustainable.
Until then, the people of the Gulf Coast will continue to fight to hold BP accountable — and hope for a healthier and resilient future. On April 20, the one-year anniversary of the BP disaster, a community of fishermen, environmental-justice advocates and Gulf Coast families will gather at the Rev. Percy Griffin Community Center, named after the Plaquemines Parish civil rights leader, to commemorate the lives of the 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. Gulf communities will come together that day to plant marsh grass to help restore the Gulf, and unveil an "Oil Spill HOPE Mural."
These communities are not so naive to believe that just because the oil is no longer visible, the Gulf is back to normal. Right now "normal," unfortunately, means coastal erosion, overfishing, dead zones and oil leaks.
The Gulf communities need something better. President Obama and Congress can take leadership and assure that BP be held fully responsible for the mess it made. Congress can order that Clean Water Act fines — the per-barrel-spilled penalty against BP that could total as much as $20 billion — are applied to Gulf restoration.
Brentin Mock is communications manager for the Ocean Conservancy's Gulf Restoration Center in New Orleans, which advocates for full restoration of the Gulf of Mexico.