On the deck of the Fish House on April 18, two days before the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion, several people sported stickers reading “Restoring Our Environment Restores Our Economy.”
The stickers’ slogan aptly summarized the message of the day’s event, a press conference marking the publication of the National Wildlife Federation’s three-year report on the status of wildlife in the Gulf.
“As beautiful as the tourists and those who play along the shores see the Gulf, we’re still concerned about the impacts that occurred for the fish life,” said Jay Liles, Policy Consultant with the Florida Wildlife Federation, the state affiliate of NWF.
Titled “Restoring a Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands Three Years Into the Gulf Oil Disaster,” the NWF’s report highlights six species who were and continue to be affected by the oil spill.
At this time three years ago, images of oil gushing from BP’s blown Macondo exploration well were nearly inescapable. These days, mainstream media coverage of the spill’s effects is less rampant, but for groups such as NWF who continue to study the impacts, no less important.
“We’re trying to reconnect with people who have moved on, as everybody does,” said Liles after the event.
Five local leaders from the business and environmental communities also spoke in support of environmental and economic restoration. “Opportunity” and “education” were the key words across the presentations.
The opportunity referenced was that coming in the form of cash, by way of the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies (RESTORE) of the Gulf Coast Act.
Pool of Money
The RESTORE Act, signed into law in July 2012, guarantees that 80 percent of fines that BP and TransOcean pay for violations of the Clean Water Act will be dedicated to a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust for use in the affected areas.
Civil proceedings against the companies began this February in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, and the outcome will determine the penalty amount.
As state and local governments await the court’s decision, consulting bodies, such as Escambia County’s RESTORE Act Advisory Committee and the Gulf Consortium, are preparing to determine how the funds will be utilized.
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson stated at the event, “That pool of money has the opportunity to restore Escambia County environmentally and economically. We’re going to work to make sure that happens, that we see a full restoration.”
Robinson, who also serves as the Chairman of the Gulf Consortium, reminded the audience, “We were the epicenter for Florida of the single-worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.”
Emphasizing the link between the health of the environment and economic development was at the forefront of many of the presenters’ messages.
“Our tourism, which really drives so much of our economy here, is dependent on clean air and clean water,” said Christian Wagley, the Environmental Representative on Escambia County’s RESTORE Act Advisory Committee. “There is a tremendous connection between a healthy environment and a healthy economy.”
From a business-owner’s standpoint, restaurateur and real estate developer Collier Merrill spoke to the importance of using funds to guarantee the health of Gulf waters. “We buy a lot of seafood that comes right out of the bay, estuaries, the Gulf,” he said, “so this is very important to us on that front.”
Reports like NWF’s that pinpoint issues needing attention are a help to those in advisory roles according to Wagley, who said, “We’re in the information gathering phase, so we need to become as educated as possible,” stating that information from both environmental and business communities is essential.
“This is our opportunity to become educated together in terms of what we need to do to completely restore our environment, and make it a sustainable recovery,”
Tony McCray Jr., representing IBIS Partners, L.L.C. and the NAACP told the crowd.
As a community and economic development specialist, McCray thanked the NWF for their efforts to educate the public at large, acknowledging that even experts in other fields need help understanding the environmental issues to move forward restoring the Gulf and its communities.
“Restoring our natural environment and economy are going to require these types of partnerships,” said Wagley of the diverse group of speakers.
Jessica Koelsch, NWF Gulf Restoration Policy Specialist, emphasized NWF’s commitment to working with groups across the Gulf. “We feel that every dollar from the RESTORE Act needs to go into meaningful projects that are going to impact both the environment and the economy of the region,” said Koelsch who believes that, in light of NWF’s findings, “the impacts are going to continue to be felt, we really have our work cut out for us.”
The NWF reports that sea turtles and dolphins are dying in record numbers, and ranked the status of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, among other species in the Gulf, as poor.
“We want to make sure we’re taking care of what is the heart of the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s the seafood, the wildlife,” said Liles.
Three years into the unprecedented BP oil spill disaster, to what extent the Gulf will be taken care of will not be determined until the RESTORE Act funds are a known quantity.
As Commissioner Robinson pointed out, “People are coming back in greater numbers than we’ve ever seen at Pensacola Beach,” but despite the tourism upturn, he stated, “Restoration cannot fully occur until we implement the RESTORE Act.”
To view and/or download the NWF report, visit nwf.org/threeyearslater
COVERING THE BP DISASTER
The Independent News earned national attention for its coverage of the BP oil spill. These were our May 2010 cover stories on the environmental nightmare.
SPILL, BABY, SPILL
Behind the Scenes of an Environmental Disaster
May 6, 2010
The IN gave an inside view into how our area and the state of Florida was preparing for tar balls headed to its beaches and waterways.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM BP
Past experiences with BP may point to future issues
May 13, 2010
The IN took a break from the endless series of press conferences and babble from the “BP Barbies” to talk with experts who have investigated and dealt with British Petroleum in other disasters and uncovered the “BP spin” game plan.
FIGHTING FOR PAPA BEAR
Deepwater Horizon tragedy through the eyes of one victim’s family
May 20, 2010
The IN traveled to Eunice, La., home of Blair “Papa Bear” Manuel, who was one of the 11 men killed on April 20 in the explosion of Deepwater Horizon. The story gave a unique, personal look at how the offshore rigs impact that small community.