7 Years Later: Remembering the Lessons of the BP Oil Disaster

by Casi (kc) Callaway, Executive Director & Baykeeper

April 20, 2010 was a horrific day for families across the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns as oil leaks into the Gulf. (Photo - U.S. Coast Guard)

When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, 11 lives were lost forever and it began what would be 87 devastating days of oil gushing out of the bottom of the Gulf with all fearing extreme results. At the time, Mobile Baykeeper employed a full-time staff of 4 with 2 incredible AmeriCorps VISTAs who decided to work like the world would end if we didn’t.

Mobile Baykeeper vowed throughout the Disaster to be actively engaged in 3 major areas: 1) Spill response, by sharing what our community knew about our waterways with the “Unified Command” decision makers who weren’t from here; 2) Ensuring the best, long-lasting, transformational restoration projects that do not harm our environment are funded; and 3) “Don’t let the lesson be lost” so that we avoid repeating the mistakes that led to this tragedy.

Thick oil washes ashore in Louisiana. (Photo - Louisiana GOHSEP)

That last focus area – learn our lesson – was the most important then and it still is today.

During the spill, we saw wildlife dead and dying along our shores and our beautiful beaches and secret fishing spots covered in oil. We saw our nation’s largest environmental disaster impact Alabama’s economy in all facets – the port, the beaches, our seafood, tourism, restaurants, and more. We learned that our economy and community are dependent upon a healthy environment. We came to see the role we need to play on a personal and community-wide level to ensure we don’t fall into old patterns and forget the risks faced by our two coastal counties. Alabama also learned exactly how much the state depends on them.

What we also began to understand 7 years ago is that we had not invested enough in research and monitoring of our natural resources, information desperately needed to ensure we could account for what was impacted. We learned that our federal and state agencies didn’t have the proper equipment or sufficiently trained staff who could ensure the rules weren’t being broken. We realized that well-defined rules were necessary to protect our environment, our economy, and our communities.

A brown pelican, only recently removed from the endangered species list, swims in oil in the Gulf. (Photo - Louisiana GOHSEP)

After 7 years, we should be moving forward, progressing past those mistakes. This year, however, we have seen a proposal to dramatically cut funding desperately needed to conduct research, monitoring and enforcement of rules that ensure we all have access to clean water. A recently issued Executive Order calls for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies to remove two regulations for every new one added – without regard to why the regulation was made originally. Proposals are being made to open new areas for drilling, requirements to reduce mercury from coal burning power plants are being removed, and residuals from coal mining are once again allowed to be dumped into streams. All of this is being proposed as a way to ensure the economic viability and vibrancy of our country, but economists and environmentalists can show specifically how critically important clean water, clean air, and healthy communities are to a strong and thriving economy and to the health of ourselves and our families.

We all want our government to improve their efficiency because that leads to smarter and better ways to protect our air, land and water giving us the quality of life we all want for our children and grandchildren. More pollution is not what we voted for.

Volunteers help construct oyster reef at Helen Wood Park, January 2011.

Once again, we need to get activated and involved. Please write your federal elected leaders – Congressman Bradley Byrne, Senator Richard Shelby, and Senator Luther Strange – and tell them we support full funding for the EPA, NOAA and other agencies that protect our drinking water, rivers and streams, and the Gulf of Mexico. Ask for funding of agencies that ensure our children can breathe clean air, swim in clean water, and that we have abundant seafood for commercial and recreational fishers to serve to our families. Ask to keep the rules that define what we’re protecting and ensure all businesses are competing honestly on a level playing field. If the Deepwater Horizon Disaster taught us anything, it’s that the consequences of violating the rules is too costly.

We must remember the summer of 2010, the loss and the fear we felt deep in our souls and the concerns we all shared so that we never allow ourselves to go back to that world.

The world didn’t end in 2010, but neither did our work for clean water, clean air and healthy communities.

Below are a few facts focused on those issues we know are relevant to Coastal Alabama that you can use to write a letter or call you federal elected officials and at the bottom of the page is the draft budget from the EPA:

  • The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (NEP), proposed for zero funding in the EPA budget, brings together leaders from business, government, experts in the scientific and research communities, nonprofit conservation and environmental organizations, and coastal residents to create and implement a Comprehensive and Conservation Management Plan. The Mobile Bay NEP has successfully leveraged its EPA funding of $600,000 per year into $20,000,000 of investment in coastal restoration activities, representing a return on investment of eight dollars for every dollar invested.
  • The proposed budget cuts to NOAA would completely eliminate the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant program.
  • The Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is estimated to contribute resources that provide at 5.8% of the total county GDP.
  • Funding cuts have implications on our ability to respond to national disasters, which have cost our state $57 billion since 1980.
  • Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s budget would be cut by 44.5%.

If the proposed cuts go through as is, the following programs would be eliminated:

  • National Estuary Program/Coastal Waterways
  • Gulf of Mexico Program
  • Marine Pollution
  • Environmental Education
  • Beach/Fish Programs
  • Beaches Protection
  • Environmental Justice
  • Nonpoint Source
  • Leaking Underground Storage Tank Prevention
  • Lead
  • Pollution Prevention
  • Underground Storage Tanks
  • Climate Protection Program
  • Endocrine Disruptors
  • Pollution Prevention Program
  • RCRA: Waste Minimization & Recycling
  • Reduce Risks from Indoor Air
  • Regional Science and Technology
  • Small Minority Business Assistance
  • Stratospheric Ozone: Multilateral Fund
  • Targeted Airshed Grants
  • Lead Risk Reduction Program
  • Water Quality Research and Support Grants
  • And Many Others
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Ready to support our work for Clean Water, Clean Air, and Healthy Communities?