The Gulf Disaster: Whose Asses Need Kicking?

A combination of industry recklessness and regulatory failure led to the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. It will happen again unless Washington, business and the rest of us change

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Eric Grigorian / Polaris

Brown Pelicans covered with oil from the BP oil spill in a holding pen at Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center waiting to be cleaned.

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Unfortunately, states and communities are defending their beaches with the oil-spill equivalent of the Maginot Line. Stringing the shoreline with protective plastic boom, followed usually by a line of absorbent boom that can soak up the oil that gets by, remains our main defense perimeter against a spill, and it hasn't changed in decades. The challenge is to track the oil as it moves, caught in the curlicue Gulf currents, and have ships on hand that can quickly move boom to where it's needed. That's why the response needs not only numbers — and more than 3,500 boats are now enrolled in the oil defense — but also coordination to get equipment to the right spot at the right time. As the spill gradually spreads from oil-soaked Louisiana to the beaches of Alabama, Mississippi and now Florida, coordination between big BP and small-boat owners, between federal officials and coastal mayors, is only going to get tougher. "In a spill this large, constantly fed by fresh oil, there are no easy answers, and there are no good answers," says oil-spill expert Richard Charter, senior policy adviser for marine programs at Defenders of Wildlife. "There are only ranges of risk."

That's true even for something as seemingly straightforward as rescuing oiled animals. Through June 8, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had reported nearly 500 slicked birds and 36 slicked turtles, among other animals affected by the spill, although it's almost certain that far more have died and will never be found. Birds in particular have proved vulnerable. Horrifying photos of brown pelicans slathered in oil on Louisiana's Grand Terre Island have already become the symbol of the spill, and significant amounts of time and energy have been spent trying to rescue and clean the animals. But the sad truth is that even rescued birds often fail to survive an oiling — especially if they're simply returned to a habitat that is still badly contaminated, as much of the Gulf Coast may be for years. "You can't just wash these birds and turn them loose," says Doug Inkley, the senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. "The No. 1 thing we can do is protect and restore their habitat."

The best way to do that might be to focus protective efforts on those areas that are most ecologically important and most sensitive, like the coastal wetlands of Louisiana. While sandy beaches hit by oil can eventually be cleaned — albeit with great effort — oil that soaks into the roots of a marsh can remain there for years. And the noble intentions of those trying to clean up a wetland can sometimes do more harm than good: think of scores of volunteers trampling sensitive marshes. That means wetlands need to be a priority for protection, preventing the damage before it's done. It also means that authorities should consider taking more extreme measures to keep the valuable sediment at the bottom of the marshes clean, potentially including in situ burning of oiled wetland grass. It looks like destroying the wetland to save it, but burning will clean off the oil, and marsh grass should grow back relatively fast. "It might seem traumatic, but it really isn't," says Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "It's one of the last-ditch measures, but it is a tool in the toolbox."

Protecting the land and making it whole is a massive job but perhaps no bigger than doing the same for the people who have watched their livelihoods be destroyed by the oil. BP has already paid out more than $80 million in claims to residents who have suffered from the spill, but on June 8 Allen was concerned enough about the company's behavior that he intensified oversight of BP. The reality, though, is that much of the damage is done, and the millions in claims BP is paying out — not to mention the billions that will no doubt be sought in future lawsuits — can't replace a coastal lifestyle that has been all but destroyed. "We will get this done. We will make this right," promise BP's ads in a new $50 million campaign. Gulf residents may rightly ask, "How?"

"Life was pre-Katrina and post-Katrina, and now it will be pre-spill and post-spill," says Marylee Orr, founder of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. "All this time I never dreamed that there was so little protection for the Gulf."

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