Last weekend my coworkers and I had the unique opportunity to get our feet wet in Mobile Bay and help our partners build a living shoreline. This amazing restoration project took place at Pelican Point near Fairhope, Alabama. Over 600 volunteers, including 300 airmen from Keesler Air Force Base, turned out early Saturday morning to help construct what in a few years will become an oyster reef teeming with life.
A living shoreline is an innovative approach to protecting an eroding shoreline, as well as creating habitat for the creatures that live in the bay. The Pelican Point living shoreline was created using structures called “oyster castles,” which are made up of interlocking concrete blocks. These concrete blocks weigh about 35 pounds each, so volunteers not only got to participate in building a reef, they also got a great workout! Continue reading »
The tan color on this map shows the range of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. The colored areas show the chance of sperm whales utilizing this habitat, with red being the highest.
Not quite a new species, but the population of sperm whales in the Gulf is distinctly different from their relatives. So different that last week, in response to a petition from WildEarth Guardians, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will be taking a closer look at sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico in order to determine if they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sperm whales across the world are already listed as an endangered species, but this new designation will recognize the Gulf population as a distinct group and protect and monitor it separately from the global population.
There are characteristics of sperm whales in the Gulf that may be sufficient to classify them as a distinct group. Gulf sperm whales do not leave the Gulf and are generally smaller and use different vocalizations (probably learned culturally) than other sperm whales. Gulf sperm whales also face Gulf-specific threats such as oil and gas development, high levels of shipping traffic and noise, potential effects from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and water quality degradation near the mouth of the Mississippi River. As shown on the map above, the area southeast of the Mississippi River Delta is important for sperm whales. The outflow of nutrients from the river, upwelling along the continental slope and eddies from Gulf currents create unique ecological conditions that make this a productive area where sperm whales go to find food and potentially mates.
As you may know, all sea turtles in U.S. waters are on the Endangered Species List as either threatened or endangered. Since January 2010, NOAA has observed an increase in marine turtle deaths in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Sea turtle deaths can occur for a number of reasons, including disease, exposure to biotoxins or pollutants, ingestion of marine debris, vessel collisions, and fishery interactions. The proposed rule would have required turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on all shrimp trawling vessels, including boats that fish in-shore and in shallower waters than those currently required to use TEDs. These in-shore boats, known in the fishing community as skimmer and butterfly trawlers instead have to comply with “tow-time” restrictions, or limits to how long they can keep their nets submerged under water while fishing. Turtles drown when trapped in the nets too long.
NOAA has since withdrawn this proposed rule for multiple reasons, but primarily because the current design of TEDs did not seem to protect turtles effectively.
There was a great deal of excitement in the courtroom across the street from Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf restoration office during BP’s first week at trial. Objection after objection from BP’s legal team have been over ruled by Judge Barbier, a culture of BP putting profit before safety has steadily emerged, and BP has found itself in perhaps one of the world’s largest finger pointing game with Halliburton and Transocean. The trial has allowed everyone the opportunity to begin learning exactly why 11 men died and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank. But as we learn about the past, we must also think about our future.
We know the people of the Gulf Coast and the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Gulf could feel the effects of the BP oil disaster for years, maybe even decades. That’s why it’s critical that however BP settles up , either in or out of court, the resolution of this disaster must keep options open for addressing any damages that may not be discovered until well into the future. One way to do this is to include a reopener clause in any form of a resolution.
A reopener clause is a sweetener to facilitate resolution of the case. It represents an additional sum of money that may be accessed in the future, thus “reopening” the issue, but only if additional injuries not known at the time of the settlement manifest. It has advantages for both sides. With a reopener clause, the federal and state parties can rest assured that if any environmental problems from the spill show up later, the government isn’t left empty handed. The polluter, BP, can seek comfort in the fact that it won’t be held accountable for potential injuries that have yet to be proven or even hypothesized at this time. This may sound logical and simple, but the devil is in the details.
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.
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.
As someone who’s worked in the Gulf region on environmental issues for years now, it sometimes seems like I’m up to my neck in plans and meetings. But now there is a real chance to work together to restore Gulf and its communities, and you can be part of the solution.
“The Path Forward to Restoring the Gulf Coast” is the first iteration of a plan to restore the Gulf Region that has been released by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council in anticipation of potentially billions of dollars that are coming to the Gulf Coast as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council was created by the RESTORE Act, a bill that directs a significant portion of the Clean Water Act fine money paid by BP and other responsible parties to be used to restore the Gulf ecosystem. This is the first time that such a large amount of money has been dedicated to restoring the Gulf’s environment.
Over the next several weeks the Restoration Council will be convening a series of public meetings throughout the region to hear from citizens about what they think restoration and protection of our resources should look like. They will develop a comprehensive plan to address the decades of ecosystem challenges in the Gulf region and provide a blueprint for citizens, environmental organizations, fishermen, scientists and elected officials to work together to restore our environment and economy to an even better condition than it was before the oil disaster.