Saving what’s leftApr 15th, 2013 | By Jessica Gonzalez | Category: top story
Three years after the worst oil spill in U.S. History, scientists worry about long-term effects on wetlands and wildlife.
The shoreline of Bay Jimmy, one of the most dramatic disaster sites during the BP Oil Spill, looks a lot different today than it did three years ago.
It is no longer smothered in thick black oil, wildlife has gradually returned, and seafood production is strong, but scientists with the National Wildlife Federation, NWF, are concerned with the unseen havoc.
“Despite the public relations blitz by BP, this spill is not over,” said David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program. “In 2012 six million pounds of tar mat and contaminated material from the BP spill were cleaned up from Louisiana’s coast. Justice will only be served when BP and its co-defendants pay to restore the wildlife and habitats of the Mississippi River Delta
and the Gulf of Mexico.”
Since the trial is still on-going, the total amount BP and Transocean are expected to pay out in civil damages has yet to be finalized but NWF is making recommendations on where that money would be best served. In a recently published report, they rate the health of six key Gulf species as well as coastal wetlands and make recommendations on how the settlement money and fines could best serve the areas most affected by the disaster.
“The most dangerous, toxic elements of the oil tended to dissipate into the system,” explained Muth during a tour of Bay Jimmy last week. “We need to look at the long term effects of that.”
In their report, scientists with the NWF say they are seeing high rates of abnormalities in dolphins and a record-high dolphin mortality rate. More than 650 dolphins have been found stranded in the oil spill area since April 2010– four times the historical average. A stranding is defined as when marine mammals, either come ashore alive under abnormal circumstances, are injured close to shore, or wash ashore dead, whether individually or in groups. Blue fin tuna numbers are down, and sea turtle strandings and deaths are at record-breaking highs.
As a small crab jumped from the marsh to his arm during a tour of Bay Jimmy, Muth asked “how much oil is this crab carrying?”
“These toxins could be amplified up the food chain.”
NWF also rated the health of the coastal wetlands as poor. In northeastern Barataria Bay, thin bamboo poles are staked in the sea floor to mark where the shoreline was in 2010. Today those poles are roughly 200 feet away from the marsh’s edge.
About 1,110 miles of shoreline were oiled when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and dumping 4.4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That massive contamination weakening the root system of the marsh grass, topped off with Louisiana’s long running battle with subsidence and coastal erosion, is proving to be a deadly combination for the vital wetlands.
“We’re trying to measure the effects of an oil spill on a system that was already in decline—it’s going to be tremendously hard to sort out these results,” said Muth.
Restoring the damage
Muth says that the silver lining of the horrible tragedy is money for coastal restoration. From the civil trial, experts are expecting up to $17.6 billion in Clean Water Act Penalties from BP; and $1 billion from Transocean. Thanks to last year’s passage of the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines paid by BP and other parties responsible will be put into a trust fund.
Of the total money collected in the trust fund,
• 35 percent is equally allocated among each of the Gulf Coast states— Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida;
• 30 percent is dedicated to the development of a Gulfwide Ecosystem restoration plan;
• 30 percent for state-specific environmental restoration plans;
• 2.5 percent for grants and research;
• 2.5 percent for long-term fisheries monitoring and ecosystem science.
In January, the court approved a $4 billion settlement for BP’s criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the loss of 11 lives. Of that, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will be doling out $2.4 billion to Gulf coast restoration projects, and another $350 million will go to the National Academy of Sciences for research.
In February of 2013, the court approved a $400 million settlement with Transocean for its criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, and $150 million of that will be distributed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for Gulf coast restoration.
State Master Plan
NWF is a big supporter of the State Master Plan, which calls for several diversions and marsh creation projects.
“Diversion” is an ugly word in Plaquemines Parish, as many local oystermen say that pumping more freshwater into brackish areas where oysters grow will kill off production and the oyster industry in the parish as we know it.
The State Master Plan has a 75,000 cubic feet per second sediment diversion in the Myrtle Grove/mid-Barataria area, that will be going out to bid soon. If the first 30-year phase of implementation is successful Muth says that the state could move on to expand that diversion to 250,000 cfs— which is the size of the Bonnett Carre spillway.
An Eastbank diversion of the same capacity is also planned in Braithwaite.
“We’re very excited about this project [Myrtle Grove Diversion],” said Muth. “In 40 years, we could see oaks growing out in this marsh if this diversion is built. It doesn’t happen now because of the salt water. Having a mix [of sediment and freshwater] is important.”
Fishermen and coastal advocates in Plaquemines Parish, including parish officials are skeptical of large scale diversions. Parish Coastal Director P.J. Hahn said at last month’s PABI luncheon that he wishes the master plan would look at the West Bay Diversion as an example of how dredging and diversions can work hand-in-hand. Officials were considering shutting down the West Bay Diversion altogether because it did not work, but a local cattle rancher persuaded them to build islands with dredged material, which in turn slowed the diversion and began creating land.
In a period of about four years, the area flourished.
“Would you like to see land built in 40 years, or 4?” said Hahn, questioning the amount of time it takes for diversions to build land.
Byron Marinovich, Councilchair and owner of the Black Velvet Oyster Bar in Buras, said he sees both sides of the argument.
“I know a lot of the oyster fishermen are afraid of big diversion’s blasting out 250,000 cfs and wiping out oysterbeds, but they need to realize that if we don’t do something now they’ll be fishing out of New Orleans East.”
Muth says any fears of a diversion operating at full cfs, year-round are unfounded. Any changes will be gradual—it takes 20 to 40 years to see results— and the diversions open in conjunction with seasonal rise of the river. The State Master Plan does have $20 million worth of dredging projects on the books, but Muth says it takes both dredging and diversions for optimal results.
“A mix of Gulf and river water is what makes estuaries and deltas healthy and productive,” explained Muth. “The mouth of the Atchafalaya and the Bird’s Foot Delta are the only places where we let the river out, and they are the most healthy and productive.”
“We’re going to see changes in fisheries,” he continued.
“That’s the way its been for hundreds of years…the idea that there’s any permanence to this system is incorrect. If we want to live down here, we need to be adaptable.”