New Projects Miss Opportunity to Jump Start Restoration in the Gulf

Today marks another milestone in the process to restore the Gulf of Mexico. But, the news isn’t all positive.  We’ve been waiting four years now for BP to “make it right” for the Gulf and clean up the mess they made when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. We knew the process of determining how much damage BP had done, sending them the bill and restoring what was lost would take time. This process is known as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA), and even in the case of smaller-scale oil spills in the past, it has taken years to complete. Knowing that the full extent of damage in the Gulf could take years, even a decade or more, to document, BP and our Gulf leaders decided to speed up the recovery process—a decision that seemed to be a step in the right direction.

If you recall back in April 2011, one year after the disaster began, BP announced in an unprecedented agreement that it would provide $1 billion to begin the much-needed restoration process in the wake of what became the largest oil disaster in U.S. history. This agreement, the largest of its kind ever reached under NRDA, was a hopeful step toward recovery. With this $1 billion “down payment” from BP, the healing process of this vast and precious ecosystem could begin.

But, this agreement was also an experiment—an experiment in how the Trustees will choose to use the NRDA funding in the future, how they will work together, and how they will ensure recovery of the Gulf. Today, the Trustees announced the final list of phase III early restoration projects, most of which are geared toward addressing lost recreational or human use, rather than restoring the Gulf itself. As we watch boardwalks being built and construction crews developing beach-front property with NRDA funding, we must ask ourselves, what are the end results of this experiment? Is this the kind of legacy we want to leave behind? For my part, I see a lost opportunity to emphasize the importance of restoring our precious natural resources consistent with the intent of NRDA.

One doesn’t have to look hard to find evidence of injury. Over the last four years, scientists have documented injury in fish that were exposed to oil and dispersants, found large areas of polluted deep-sea sediments and dead deep-sea corals, and estimated the die-off of massive numbers of seabirds. In addition, sick and dead dolphins continue to wash ashore in unusually high numbers. Yet, only one project has been slated for funding that addresses these impacts.

We are, however, encouraged that the trustees are considering a long-term approach to monitoring for the final Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan for the disaster. But we’re concerned that some Phase III projects may have environmental impacts and in those cases we would encourage further NEPA analysis.

The Trustees were given a never-before-seen chance to begin the recovery process with $1 billion and so far they have largely lost this opportunity to jump-start restoration. The question remains, at what cost to the Gulf of Mexico?

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