BP 2-Year Anniversary: What can be done to restore the Gulf?

The following is an excerpt from the Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies report, "Troubled Waters: Two Years after the BP Oil Disaster, A Struggling Gulf Coast Calls for National Leadership for Recovery." Read the full report here [pdf].

TROUBLED WATERS: A Community Blueprint for Gulf Renewal

By Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm

I would really like to have a roundtable with the president where the people on the Gulf who are the experts on the recovery process, because we live it — that we set the table and we be part of the decision-making. … We want the president to bring the hope back to the community.

- Sharon Hanshaw, Coastal Women for Change, Mississippi

Listen to an interview with Sharon Hanshaw, Executive Director of Coastal Women for Change here.

Across the Gulf Coast, grassroots activists and policy advocates are working on a wide range of issues to ensure a full recovery after the BP spill and other disasters. Projects range from providing vocational training to displaced fishing families, to advocating for access to affordable housing and medical care, to restoring coastal wetlands.

On the state and federal policy level, Gulf Coast community leaders have mobilized around several key measures they say will be key to an equitable and sustainable recovery. These measures include:

STEER BP FINES INTO COASTAL RENEWAL: As of mid-April 2012, Congress had not passed into law any legislation that directly responds to the issues raised by the oil disaster—but it was getting close.

In March 2012, the Senate passed the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunity, and Revived Economies of the Gulf States Act of 2011, also known as the RESTORE Act. Introduced by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) with the co-sponsorship of most of her Gulf state colleagues, the legislation would ensure that 80 percent of the fines BP is expected to pay under the Clean Water Act—estimated to be between $5 billion and $20 billion—is steered back to the five Gulf Coast states to revive ecosystems and economies damaged by the spill. It also dedicates half of the interest generated from the fines to a new National Endowment for the Oceans that would provide funding for marine restoration and conservation projects nationwide.

The Senate passed the bill on March 14, 2012 as an amendment to a transportation bill. The measure then went on to the House, which did not take it up immediately and instead declared a recess.

But the week of the BP disaster’s two-year anniversary, the House reconvened and approved its own transportation bill that includes the RESTORE Act. The two transportation bills will now go to a conference committee, which will hammer out final language.

“The way the law is structured right now, most of the BP fines would actually go into the general treasury of the U.S.,” says Dan Favre, communications director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “We want to see those dollars come back to the Gulf to be used for environmental efforts, like coastal restoration in Louisiana, for areas that have been impacted not only from BP’s oil this time, but from the environmental degradation that we’ve been experiencing in the Gulf for decades.”

ENSURE A FAIR LEGAL SETTLEMENT: The proposed partial settlement between BP and the plaintiffs steering committee announced in February 2012 is big news, but it doesn’t resolve the legal issues surrounding environmental damages.

BP and their co-defendants still face fines under the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws for as much as $20 billion. A trial pitting federal, state and local governments against BP still appears likely, and they must hold the company and its co-defendants fully accountable for damages.

The first Clean Water Act settlement with a company involved in the Gulf disaster was reached with MOEX Offshore, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsui Oil Exploration Co. that owned 10 percent of BP’s Macondo well. That settlement directed less than 25 percent of fines toward Gulf conservation initiatives, underscoring the importance of Congress passing the RESTORE Act.

BP will also still need to pay a still-undetermined amount for the Natural Resources Damage Assessment and recovery efforts that come out of that process, which aims to return the Gulf environment to its pre-disaster state.  That process must fully account for the harm done by the oil spill.

MAKE GULF COMMUNITIES PART OF THE PROCESS: Community leaders say that for the recovery to work, it must include the voices and perspectives of those who have been most affected by the disaster—and who will be critical to implementing any recovery plan.

They point to the model of the Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council that was established in the wake of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Community leaders learned much from that process, experience that could be helpful in creating an effective advisory body in the Gulf Coast.

Any potential settlement between the government and BP should include funding for a Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council to give local, impacted communities a voice in ensuring that oil and gas operations obey safety and environmental laws.

“The best way to [develop better oil industry standards] is to give community members who are most impacted by the oil disaster—the fishermen, the mom and pop tourism groups, the conservation organizations, the Native American tribes here in the Gulf region—a voice in making sure that oil production and exploration is happening safely,” says Favre of the Gulf Restoration Network.

MAKE SURE PLANS HAVE RESOURCES BEHIND THEM: Louisiana is getting ready to adopt a $50 billion coastal restoration plan, but there are lingering concerns over funding for the work.

Gulf leaders say the federal government must do everything in its power to ensure the money is in place to implement the plan, which includes congressional approval of the RESTORE Act. The region is too important economically to allow it to wash into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the same time, the U.S. government must recognize its obligations under international human rights agreements to ensure that the unique cultures tied to the land of the Gulf Coast—indigenous, African-American, Cajun and Creole—are not destroyed by mass displacement.

Coastal restoration and protection will bring with it an additional benefit: the development of an industry that will bring jobs and much-needed economic diversification to the region.

ENSURE GULF RESIDENTS GET THE HEALTH CARE THEY NEED: Despite growing evidence of health problems created by the oil spill and the chemical dispersants applied in record amounts, Gulf residents have had few resources available to get needed medical attention.

The Gulf Coast Claims Facility that administered the $20 billion compensation fund set up by BP refused to make payouts for spill-related illnesses. There is still uncertainty about how the court-administered fund that will replace the facility under the class-action legal settlement will operate, but an initial analysis raised concerns that there may be narrow restrictions on who is covered and how much assistance they can get.

Gulf community leaders also say that BP and the government could support their efforts to deliver health assistance to affected residents, like the detoxification clinics offered by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Without additional support, they say, their efforts will be limited.

ADDRESS THE USE OF TOXIC DISPERSANTS FOR OIL SPILLS: As part of its response to the oil spill, BP sprayed about 2 million gallons of dispersants to break up the slick. The products are known to contain chemicals hazardous to human health, and have been identified as a possible culprit in health problems experienced by exposed cleanup workers and coastal residents.

In December 2011, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced the Ban Toxic Dispersants Act (H.R. 3562), which would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to establish new procedures for the use of chemical dispersants in oil-spill cleanup efforts.

The bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the baseline levels of toxicity and effectiveness for the chemicals, as well as study the risks posed by their use. It also includes a temporary moratorium on the use of dispersants until the study and new rules are complete, and would require that the ingredients of the dispersants and the locations where they’re being used are fully disclosed online.

FULLY FUND GULF SCIENCE AND MONITORING: After the 2010 oil disaster, BP pledged up to $500 million over a decade to create the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, an independent program to support scientific research in Gulf States on various aspects of the spill, including the fate of the oil and its environmental effects.

However, the initiative has a major shortcoming. “They have provided money for research, but not for vessels,” Ian MacDonald, a professor of biological oceanography at Florida State University, told a recent gathering of Gulf Coast advocates.

Records show that four institutions—Texas A&M, the University of Mississippi, Florida State University and the University of South Florida—have been awarded grants through the initiative, but none pay for ships. That has left scientists without a way to collect and process samples, and therefore understand what's happening in the Gulf, where research vessels are scarce.

As a result, of 22 ships nationally available for federally funded ocean science, only one has a homeport in the Gulf—the Pelican, which operates out of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie, La. And the Pelican is a smaller ship that isn’t adequate for some types of research.

Ensuring that such monitoring is fully funded will be critical to measuring the progress of the Gulf recovery and monitoring the impact of future spills. Scientists hope some of the money coming out of the BP lawsuit will be directed to such science and research needs. MacDonald offered another suggestion for how to ensure Gulf science gets the funding it deserves: place a research tax on oil companies.