Bayou La Batre, Alabama
This week, over $600 million in early restoration projects were announced by states in the Gulf of Mexico. This is BP money that is specifically to be used to address the damage caused by the oil disaster. Some of the projects announced this week, like the oyster reef restoration project in Alabama, and many projects in Louisiana, are likely to be supported by the public and to be appropriate uses of Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) funding. Unfortunately, the public can’t make that determination without access to more information.
We are disappointed to see these projects announced without the inclusion of any sort of environmental or overarching analysis to provide transparency or opportunities for public involvement, not to mention provide the legal basis and policy guidance for addressing the injury caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
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As we begin week two of BP’s trial in New Orleans, I can’t help but think back to the earliest days of the spill when oil spewed uncontrolled from the depths of the ocean and snaked its way toward shore.
I was at Incident Command in Mobile, Ala., when people were just starting to realize how serious that spill was going to be. The command center housed hundreds of people, from local elected officials to Coast Guard officers to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And of course, BP was there en masse.
It was a surreal experience, but one of my most vivid memories of that time was the look on the faces of the BP employees. It was a cross between disbelief and sheer panic. Looking into their eyes, you could tell that they literally had not thought this type of disaster could ever occur. They were really scared.
But by the end of the summer, those looks were gone. They were replaced by perfect sound bites, slick slogans and promises to “make it right.” And when the well was capped after 87 days, the story faded in most of the country, replaced by commercials about the Gulf being better than ever.
In the past three years, BP has spent inordinate amounts of time and money shirking responsibility, pointing fingers at others and downplaying the seriousness of the disaster. Now is the time for BP to be held responsible.
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Restoring the Gulf of Mexico – A brown pelican flies off Elmer’s Island, Louisiana with an oil rig in the background. Photo: Cheryl Gerber
As the likelihood of a settlement in the civil case against BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster shrinks, here are a few basic facts about what to expect when the big trial kicks off in New Orleans next week as scheduled.
The trial is being handled in three separate phases: (1) the incident phase; (2) the source control/discharge phase; and (3) the final phase addressing oil containment issues like the use of skimmers, dispersant and boom.
Phase One of the trial is scheduled to start this coming Monday, Feb. 25. It’s called the “Trial of Liability, Limitation, Exoneration, and Fault Allocation.” It is a non-jury trial, meaning Judge Barbier is the decisionmaker. It will focus on the lead-up to the disaster and is designed to determine the causes of BP’s well blowout. It should answer the question of gross vs. simple negligence. The United States intends to prove gross negligence or willful misconduct at the Phase One trial. Yesterday, BP issued a statement about its intentions to “vigorously defend” itself against the gross negligence allegations . This is very important for determining the fines for violations of the Clean Water Act, which will in turn influence how much money is available for restoration of the Gulf of Mexico through the RESTORE Act passed last year.
Phase Two will address efforts to stop the flow of oil from the well. The dates for Phases Two and Three of the trial have not been set. We will be keeping a close watch on the proceedings.
Read what we’ve said previously about what a good resolution to this case should look like.
Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, with a drilling rig in the background. Photo by Brandon Shuler
Passed in July 2012, The RESTORE Act directs money from penalties in response to the BP oil disaster to the Gulf Coast, but has only been a written law – a promise to the citizens of the region – until now. A newly announced $1.4 billion settlement between the Department of Justice and Transocean Ltd will provide some real green to the RESTORE Act and help to begin the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal and marine resources.
Holding all parties responsible for their role in the BP oil disaster is imperative to provide some of the financing needed to restore the Gulf’s ecosystems and people. Transocean will plead guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and pay over a billion dollars in fines.
It is great news that a combined $300 million from the settlement will be directed to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and National Academy of Sciences. Using and improving science is extremely important not only in recovering from disasters, but in gaining a better understanding of the Gulf’s resources so we can provide better protection for these resources so critical to the culture and livelihoods of the Gulf Coast and the Nation.
This new settlement is a great step forward, but the biggest step is yet to come. BP still needs to be held fully accountable and it’s unfortunate that we still have no resolution of civil and administrative claims. We deserve nothing less than a trial resolution that recognizes and compensates the people of the Gulf for all that has been lost.
As we move forward, we must not forget the off-shore environment, where this disaster began. Restoration of the Gulf requires an approach that addresses marine resources as well as coastal environments and Gulf communities.
We must focus our effort, energy and funding to restoration of our coastal and marine environments as well as our coastal communities if we are going to realize our vision of a vibrant and healthy Gulf region. Ocean Conservancy encourages everyone to continue to be involved in the restoration process and to work together to make sure all liable parties are held accountable and that we have a Gulf of Mexico stronger than before.
Just a few examples of the off-shore impacts of the BP disaster
Big news today. BP will pay record criminal fines resulting from the BP oil disaster. This is a step forward in settling all of BP’s debts to the Gulf Coast citizens who deserve for BP to be held fully accountable to the maximum extent of the law. BP pleading to criminal charges, before a global settlement is reached, is some vindication for those who deserve to know the truth about why this disaster occurred. We are approaching three years since the rig explosion, and you don’t have to look far to see that people are still suffering the effects of this tragedy turned environmental disaster turned economic disaster.
However, this is not the end of the road. Not by a long shot.
BP still needs to answer for their gross negligence and while these record criminal penalties are a step forward, they do not pay for the damage BP has done to the broader Gulf community. We were pleased to see Attorney General Eric Holder today (just a few floors down from our New Orleans office) make it very clear that he intends to prove in court that BP was grossly negligent in allowing a vast amount of oil to gush into the Gulf—a legal definition that carries the highest civil penalties under the Clean Water Act.
It’s an important step for BP to accept responsibility for the deaths of 11 workers on the first day of this tragedy and it sets the stage for BP to continue to be held accountable with record fines, especially in regard to the amount of money directed to the Gulf through the RESTORE ACT in order to fully restore Gulf Coast communities, and both the coastal and marine environments.
It’s also good news that some of the criminal fines announced today will be directed to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and National Academy of Sciences. This will provide some good opportunities to begin making the Gulf whole. But that money is different from the civil fines BP should pay under the Clean Water Act, which would be directed to the RESTORE Act passed earlier this year. BP still has much to answer for and the criminal settlement will not come close to making up for the damage BP is responsible for in the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s unfortunate that we have to wait for a trial that doesn’t start until next year to hold BP fully accountable. But this is progress and there is work happening now through early restoration that is moving us closer to recovery. As we move forward, we must not forget the off-shore environment, where this disaster began. Restoration of the Gulf requires an approach that addresses marine resources as well as coastal environments and Gulf communities. The nation must commit effort and money to address all three in order to achieve a resilient, healthy Gulf with a sustainable future.
No amount of money will change the fact that 11 men lost their lives, and I for one can’t find the heart to celebrate the closing of another chapter in the oil disaster. But I am optimistic that this criminal settlement sets the tone for a final trial resolution that will recognize and compensate the people of the Gulf for all that has been lost. We deserve nothing less.
Have you heard that Coast Guard officials recently confirmed an oil slick found in the Gulf of Mexico last week matched oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Indeed, while the BP spill may be a distant memory to some, the Gulf still feels the effects today. The Coast Guard has said the oil slick “does not post a threat to the shoreline,” but it will certainly affect the Gulf’s offshore waters, which are just as vital to the region’s overall health.
In my latest Huffington Post piece, I weigh in on the threats this oil continues to pose in the Gulf and discuss the ways Ocean Conservancy continues to work toward marine restoration in this important area. One project helps point baby turtles back to sea:
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Tar balls photographed by Louisiana state response teams on Elmer’s Island in Jefferson Parish on September 1, 2012. Credit: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Last week was a long one for Gulf Coast residents as we watched Hurricane Isaac waffle about where to land before settling on coastal Louisiana, causing massive flooding from storm surge in Mississippi and Louisiana and bringing businesses and communities to a grinding halt for over a week.
As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, what with hurricanes and flooding and power outages and devastation for too many people, we also had the pleasure of remembering (in case any of us had forgotten) that we are still in the grips of responding to and recovering from the BP oil disaster.
Far from magically disappearing, oil has persisted in the marine environment for over two years now, and the force of Hurricane Isaac has churned up an ugly reminder of how much work we still have to do to restore the Gulf ecosystem. Tarballs and mats are showing up from Louisiana to Alabama, even forcing the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to issue a closure for commercial fishing in the area of a large oil mat off Elmer’s Island.
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