Open letter to the Gulf Coast Recovery Council of Alabama
July 12, 2012
To the Council Members:
With the passage of the RESTORE act, you are presented with an extraordinary opportunity and challenge: THE OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN OUR SOCIETY AND THE CHALLENGE TO CARRY THROUGH ON IT. The amount of money is enormous by most modern-day standards, but the needs in Alabama alone are as big as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are deep. The coastal region between New Orleans and Destin has suffered a socioeconomic calamity of proportions far greater than that of any single hurricane in our region’s history. The duration of this impact lasted months, not hours, and the aftermath continues to linger some two years after the end of the “storm that kept coming and coming.” At the moment, the short-term environmental impacts, from the oil spill and the application of the dispersants, have not justified the depth and breadth of the enormous economic consequences that spread throughout the region.
Despite the dire predictions and the grave concerns repeatedly expressed by a media-driven general public, the initial data suggest that the Gulf of Mexico met and probably exceeded the most optimistic of our projections for its rebound in many areas. The immediate, short-term, impacts did not rise, or perhaps we should say fall, to the levels anticipated by some members of the scientific and environmental communities. Having said that, the long-term impacts of this disaster, as were witnessed following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, are yet to be determined, but a number of marine scientists working around the Gulf do not foresee ecosystem-shaking consequences. It is out of an abundance of caution though, and a desire to prevent a future set of oil spill-driven outcries, that we feel compelled to point out that almost none of the much-trumpeted $500 million dollar commitment by BP to study the Gulf is directed toward monitoring the long-term health of the Gulf. That was never the intent of this commitment. We also want you to know that the insertion of a “re-opener clause” in any state settlement with BP will be meaningless if there are no new data generated to support the re-opening of litigation at a future date. Clearly, there is an imperative need to monitor the health of the resources in our coastal waters.
Admittedly, some members of the scientific community supplied the media feeding frenzy with headline-grabbing hyperbole because they were ill-prepared to provide accurate forecasts of the consequences of the oil spill. Early on, the region’s scientists struggled to make predictions about where the oil would move and where it would make landfall. The reason for their difficulty is, in our opinion, simple. This was a direct result of a historical lack of investment in science infrastructure and monitoring programs in the Gulf of Mexico. The absence of an established observatory system that could have been used to develop circulation models was also a key gap in our scientific capabilities and its absence limited our ability to make data-based predictions about the oil’s movement.
Here was a time when research and education could have led the way to reason but was unable to do so convincingly because of a lack of historical study in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, there were prolonged periods of public doubt and uncertainty; these two facts provided some with a platform to repeatedly predict a catastrophic meltdown of the Gulf’s ecosystem structure and function. In some venues, these predictions continue to this day.
Additional uncertainties were created by the fact that this was the first significant deep water discharge – ever! Due to the cumulative effects of the lack of investment in the study of the Gulf and the uniqueness of this situation, the scientific response to the immediate demands for information from the media was slower than the 24/7, global news cycle demanded. The scientific process demands debate, reflection, and skepticism. This is process is poorly appreciated by virtually all non-scientists.
The Gulf provides so much to the nation yet receives so little in return. The continued development of our region’s economy depends, in large part, on the health and productivity of our coastal waters. The travesty now would be to encounter the next issue, be it oil spill, sea level rise, invasive species, storm impact, or habitat restoration, without fixing the problems that can be addressed. Perhaps the greatest of all of the challenges that scientists and coastal planners face today is being able to tease apart the effects of man’s impacts on the Gulf of Mexico from those changes resulting from nature. We now have the opportunity to develop the infrastructure to adequately address future disasters.
We also propose that you consider a number of important conservation and restoration efforts for funding. Because the links between the Gulf and our inshore waters are key determinants of our region’s fisheries, we respectfully request that you fund long-term ecosystem based monitoring in the inshore and nearshore waters of coastal Alabama. If there are, in fact, subtle, hard-to-detect impacts, as some have argued, continuing to occur in our offshore waters, they will manifest themselves soon and the requested monitoring will provide our Attorney General and city and county managers with the data needed to legitimize the filing of future claims against the offending parties. We also recommend that you: provide the funding to improve the infrastructure needed to reduce storm water and sewage runoff throughout coastal Alabama; clean up and restore the Mobile Bay tributaries (e.g., D’Olive and Three Mile Creeks and Dog River);expand the ongoing oyster reef restoration programs being conducted by the Nature Conservancy and others in Mobile Bay; establish long-term inshore water quality monitoring programs in Mobile Bay that will provide you and the public with a clear picture of how well our environmental planners and their programs are doing; and provide funding for the monitoring needed to justify the beneficial uses of uncontaminated dredged materials for wetlands restoration and for community-based education programs that teach our current and future citizens how to become better stewards of state’s bountiful resources. Importantly, all of these recommendations are job-creating projects that will leave positive legacies behind for our children and our children’s children in our region. This is our moment to make a difference. Let’s make America’s Sea an American priority.
John F. Valentine
Executive Director, Dauphin Island Sea Lab
George F. Crozier
Retired Executive Director, Dauphin Island Sea Lab