As Phase 3 of the BP Civil Trial begins, I’m thinking back to a recent boat trip in the Barataria Basin to see habitat damage in the aftermath of the oil spill.
A few months ago, LWF was approached by reporters who came to Louisiana to cover a story on impacts from the BP oil spill nearly 5 years later. To help illustrate the changes, we (LWF Executive Director Rebecca Triche, and LWF Coastal Outreach Coordinator Michelle Maloney) hopped on a boat out of Myrtle Grove with David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation and headed out to Cat Island.
As we passed acres and acres of beautiful marsh, I tried to imagine what it would have looked like if we had taken this boat ride 10, 20 and 30 years ago. The further from the river we travelled, the more open the water became, and we finally approached a tiny spit of sand and shell, with just a few mangrove twigs left. We got off the boat onto “Cat Island” and talked about how Cat Island has changed as a result of the oil spill. It was much larger and connected to another tiny spit of sand and shell several yards away. It had an abundance of plants and bird habitat, but on that day we saw one dying mangrove left and no evidence of bird nesting.
After talking a little bit about the changes Cat Island has seen, we got back into the boat and puttered around the nearby spits of land. In addition to the bit that Cat Island was once connected to, there was also a small island close by that way covered in white pelicans. These pelicans used to have their choice of islands to nest on, but their habitat is quickly disappearing. This “Bird Island” had hundreds if not thousands of pelicans hanging around.
From there we headed over to Bay Jimmy to talk about how the oil spill has accelerated erosion of marsh in that area. Oil that drifted into this area killed the roots of the plants, and broke up the marsh. David Muth recalled that immediately after the spill a band of black lined the perimeter of the vegetative islands. That was oil that was washed up onto the exposed marsh. The plants died and floated away, creating smaller and smaller islands and marshes.
Going out to areas impacted by the oil spill reminded me that we must be vigilant that fines and penalties from the oil spill are spent on restoration projects. The legal aftermath of the 2010 BP disaster has been a long and complicated process. The civil lawsuit to hold BP accountable for the destruction in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the largest oil spill in US history began last year. This particular lawsuit deals with BP’s role in violating the Clean Water Act, and is divided into three phases. Last year phase 1 (determining the liability of BP and other parties in the spill), and phase 2 (determining how much oil was spilled) were completed. The third phase will determine the fine BP will pay: how much per barrel of oil spilled.
Even before the spill, Louisiana had no shortage of coastal restoration challenges and this event added to the problem. We need to remember that this is not free money coming to the state. This money comes at the cost of the largest man-made environmental disaster in the country’s history, and it should be spent on making things better for habitat, wildlife and people.