Saved by the Sea (not BP)
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Opposition to planned offshore acoustic oil surveys and drilling is spreading up and down the Atlantic coast like a fine blue slick of citizen outrage.
75 marine scientists recently sent a letter to President Obama opposing air gun seismic oil surveys in the Atlantic noting, “the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which only 500 remain.” http://news.neaq.org/2015/03/full-text-letter-urging-president-to.html
The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) put out its own letter on marine wildlife including a red herring targeting some environmentalist exaggerations without mentioning oil industry claims that acoustic surveys do no harm. It also failed to directly respond to the criticisms contained in the scientists’ letter.
At Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina some 600 opponents including three town mayors showed up for a BOEM public hearing while reporters could only find 2 folks wandering around a pro-drilling room set up at the Ramada Inn where the hearing took place.
In South Carolina Folly Beach is among the latest of some 40 coastal towns that have passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and the use of air guns. Growing numbers of opponents have also turned out for BOEM hearings from New Jersey to Florida to oppose new drilling that could begin in 2017 with acoustic blasting starting as early as this summer.
On March 12 Blue Frontier’s outreach coordinator Kathleen Collins joined some 80 other people at the South Atlantic Offshore Drilling Forum in Chapel Hill North Carolina organized by the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of dozens of groups now working on the issue that will also be highlighted at the Blue Vision Summit in D.C. May 11-14.
Opposition is also coming from the northern reaches of where a potential BP type disaster could spread. “If drilling is allowed off the East Coast of the United States, it puts our beaches, our fishermen and our environment on the crosshairs for an oil spill that could devastate our shores,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a 2013 Benchley Ocean Award winner declared.
The more people learn about the pollution and climate threat posed by new offshore drilling the more quickly the momentum seems to build to stop it and the more likely Blue Frontier’s idea for a ‘Sea Party’ gains momentum as a way to highlight the full range of ocean issues in the upcoming presidential campaigns.
Meanwhile April 20 will mark the 5th anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf that saw 11 rig workers killed and a months long spill of some 5 million barrels of oil.
On April 14 New World Library will release the updated paperback edition of my book, “Saved by the Sea – Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World.” Here’s an excerpt about the BP disaster that we’re all still living with:
I’m flying in a small Cessna over the site of the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Below us one hundred dolphins and a humpback whale are trapped and dying in the oil that’s spread from horizon to horizon. Nearby, half a dozen 1,500-foot-high columns of dark smoke rise from the surface where BP contract crews are trying to burn off some of the oil, while roaring flames shoot from one of the diversionary wells where eleven workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig were killed and dozens of ships are now positioned in the hazy smog…
I visit miles of fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida; a bird-scrubbing facility, where hundreds of oiled pelicans are being cleaned; and the Atakapa Ishak Indian community of Grand Bayou near Burus, Louisiana, a small town that was kindling and rubble the last time I was there, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Buras wasn’t much before Katrina, but it’s much less now, with fewer residents, a hollowed-out strip mall where the town fire truck is parked inside the shell of a store, and no signs of recovery five years on unless you count the home-built flower boxes someone’s attached to a rusting FEMA trailer. Only the heat and humidity remain unchanged.
The gravel road into Grand Bayou ends at a boat dock. The village is built along canals that wind out to Barataria Bay. There are no roads for cars, just boats to get around on. Twenty-three families used to live here, but since Hurricane Katrina swept through there are nine left, though five more families are planning to return once new stilt homes are completed with help from the Mennonite Disaster Service.
We load nine people into a camouflage-painted flatboat, including Rosina Philippe, who’s become an unofficial spokeswoman for the Ishak, and her brother Maurice, the boat handler. Maurice is a big, dark-skinned oysterman with a weather-beaten face, a salt-and-pepper mustache, and a camo cap with sun- glasses resting on the brim. There is also Karen Phillips (different parts of the family spell their last name differently) and her grandson Brock, who’s three.
“His twin sister’s with her mom and dad today, but we can’t keep Brock away from the water,” Karen explains. “He’s going to be a future Bayou man.”
We take off heading out the channel into the open bay. “We have seen changes in the environment here over time. We’ve lived here for time without number. We do not have a time in our memory of being anywhere else,” Rosina tells me. She’s a proud, broad-faced woman, though tired-seeming now, with a long black braid that she keeps in front of her where she can keep an eye on it.
“We’re still subsistence people in the twenty-first century,” she explains. “Everything we need—the animals, vegetables, medicinal plants, and herbs—we have here. But the situation with the oil and dispersants is having unknown effects on our waters.”
We’ve crossed into open water now, and after twenty minutes Maurice slows the boat, steering us toward the edge of the marsh, where the bottom of the saw grass is stained black up to the high-tide mark, about two feet above the waterline.
“We still fish, shrimp, oyster, and trap—our men do this and we teach the little ones,” Rosina says, gesturing at Brock, who’s playing with the straps on his small blue life vest. “But if we can’t teach shrimping to him in the next ten to twenty years—”
“It’ll kill our culture,” his grandmother interrupts. She’s a big, light-skinned woman in a pink-and-white-striped shirt. She’s been holding on to Brock as we’ve rocketed across the bay.
“This is Bay Batiste, and that’s Bay Jimmy,” Maurice points to what looks like an island where a government wildlife boat is cruising, its aluminum cabin topped by several carrier cages for oiled birds.
“When they built the canals, they became little bays, and when they build parallel canals, soon all the marsh in between becomes open water,” Rosina explains.
“We’re passing oyster reef. We have some seventy acres here, and I see nothing but lots of oil in grass. I see lots of death here— all the oysters gonna die!” Maurice worries.
I ask him how much he’d normally collect.
“Good day, we caught one hundred sacks by lunch. That would be six hours.” Maurice was the first one to report the oil that surged into Barataria Bay in early June, and it has since become the epicenter of what’s known as the Battle of Barataria, the ongoing struggle to clean and protect parts of these famously productive swamp waters west of Port Sulphur and the Mississippi River.
We push up against the blackened grasses so a C-SPAN crew riding with us can interview Rosina, but the wind is rising and dark clouds are closing in. Tarred oil boom is floating on the edge of the marsh with orange drops of oil dispersed inside and outside the snaky one-hundred-foot-long barricade.
“Oil came into this bay forty-six days after the disaster, and they didn’t block it!” Rosina says bitterly. Later the Coast Guard captain in charge at the BP facility being used as the state incident command center (ICC) outside Houma will tell me the oil was so dispersed in so many separate slicks that it “infiltrated into the bay under the booms,” though I have a hard time believing that.
As the waves begin lapping against our hull and the sky turns black with fat drops of rain starting to fall, we cut the interview short and run for shore. A couple of dolphins surface nearby, maybe curious to see what we’re up to. Maurice jigs and jags the boat through grassy dogleg channels of a natural canal that hasn’t been oiled yet, the black clouds falling off behind us, and with the freshening wind and thump of the boat, it feels good to be on the water again, even if I’m here to report on yet another apocalyptic scene of unnecessary waste and destruction.
We pull into the main channel at Grand Bayou and up to Rosina’s small stilt house, where the C-SPAN crew sets up to try the interview again and a fat dachshund barks happily.
“He’s a big-boned dog,” I suggest.
“That’s Maurice’s dog. He loves that dog, but he overfeeds him.” Rosina grins affectionately at her rough-hewn brother, who pretends not to hear as he ties up the boat.
Aaron, a staffer from the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans–based environmental group, reminds her that when they’d talked a year ago she was reluctant to criticize the oil companies.
“We were looking to restore our coasts collaboratively,” she replies, “but this disaster shows that the oil industry doesn’t care. This death in the Gulf of Mexico should not be the price of cheaper gas.”
Then she starts to repeat her story about how the four hundred- plus Atakapa Ishak were scattered after Katrina so that they’re now living in Texas and Tennessee as well as southern Louisiana, and how they were starting to come back here to live together again where they have lived forever. But given their region’s ongoing disasters, they may soon lose their homeland forever.
To pre-order ‘Saved by the Sea’ go to:
Join hundreds of ocean and coastal leaders from the Gulf, the Atlantic seaboard, the Golden Shore of California, Colorado and the inland ocean movement and from sea to shining sea to stop the unnecessary waste and destruction of our public seas and restore the blue in our red, white and blue.
Help advance common sense solutions for our ocean and coastal communities at the 5th Blue Vision Summit and 8th annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards May 11-14 in Washington D.C.
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