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Gulf Residents Respond to the National Oil Spill Commission's Report

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It has been an honor to serve for the past six months on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Last week, though, was the most rewarding of all: we got to share our findings with Gulf communities and hear their ongoing concerns about the spill's aftermath.

We began in New Orleans, where my fellow Commissioner Don Boesch and I met with Michel Claudet, the president of Terrebonne Parish, and several other area stakeholders for an intimate discussion of our findings and what they mean for the region.

Later, Don and I addressed some 250 area fishermen, shrimpers, environmental justice advocates, community activists, and others in a ballroom of a downtown hotel. These hard-hit yet resilient residents spoke with passion about the impact this spill continues to have on their waters, their livelihoods, and their way of life. Many are also deeply frustrated by the Feinberg claims process.

But overwhelmingly, they expressed anger, and fear over their conviction that the spill continues to pose health threats to them and their families and that officials aren't responding in an effective way.

I was asked point blank by one participant to take the message to the White House, and I promised to do so. The country must stand by these people, and I believe we will.

Later that day, we sat around a large table with two dozen local environmental justice advocates and environmentalists who have long stood up for the Gulf and the wetlands that nourish it. They hope the BP disaster has focused sufficient national attention to finally deal in an effective way with the litany of stress on this irreplaceable region. I share this hope, and I highlighted the commission's recommendations for long-term restoration projects in the region.
Thursday I traveled with fellow commissioner Fran Ulmer, the chancellor of the University of Alaska in Anchorage, to Biloxi, Mississippi, for a conversation with state conservation and wildlife officials, local elected leaders and area business people whose livelihoods are tied to fishing and tourism.

Their message to us was bracing: the region is reeling from perceptions among tourists and diners that the oil has done more damage to beaches and seafood than it actually has. What's needed, they stressed, is better seafood testing to ensure that Americans everywhere can buy Gulf seafood with confidence. There were also, though, citizen voices echoing the health concerns we'd heard in New Orleans the day before.

Back in New Orleans, we had dinner with Harlon Pearce, owner of Harlon's LA Fish & Seafood, which ships Gulf seafood to restaurants nationwide. Also there: Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, and Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. Byron took me on his oyster boat into his beds in Barataria Bay just two weeks after the BP blowout last spring.

It's been a tough year for these men -- and for thousands of others like them who make their living from Gulf seafood. Again, their concern was straightforward: seafood testing has to be credible. More than that, it has to be authoritative, so that customers can buy, and diners can eat, Gulf seafood with confidence.

Finally on Friday, we journeyed to Baton Rouge to address two dozen scholars and oil executives who grilled us on key details of the commission findings and recommendations.

Some industry folks expressed skepticism. We heard their concerns, and they heard ours. It was a cordial and constructive exchange. The scholars, meanwhile, were supportive of the commission's findings and recommendations.

Two themes came through loud and clear. First, more research is needed to develop the sound science required to make informed and responsible decisions about how offshore drilling impacts our oceans and coasts. Second, a contingency fund needs to be established so that emergency testing can be performed by knowledgeable and independent scholars and scientists if and when the next spill occurs. Many felt hamstrung by a dire lack of money to fund research as basic as taking water samples in the critical days and weeks after the BP blowout. In many cases, researchers forked out their own money to fund such tests. Even then, though, many found access to beaches, wetlands and waters restricted by BP and government clean-up workers.

I welcomed this and all the conversations we had in the Gulf last week. Throughout the commission's six-month investigation, we listened closely to what Gulf residents had to say, and their voices shaped our report. Now I hope they will raise their voices once again and urge the industry, the administration and the Congress to put the commission's recommendations in place.

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