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Four Years After the BP Oil Spill, Hope for a Full Recovery in the Gulf Remains Strong Despite Slow Progress

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Sunday, April 20, marks the four-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Those of us living on the Gulf of Mexico have not forgotten the fiery explosion, the unnecessary loss of life and the widespread damage to coastal and marine environments and wildlife.

After all, oil continues to wash ashore. Marine life continues to struggle to recover. Comprehensive Gulf restoration is needed -- especially in the marine environment where the spill occurred. And funding is in short supply for the ongoing, key scientific studies needed to determine exactly what healthy, restored marine and coastal environments might look like.

I vividly remember the 2010 disaster. I was working as a natural resource planner for Baldwin County in my home state of Alabama and found myself suddenly flying in a Black Hawk helicopter for the first time. We swooped over beaches watching the waves of oil roll in from the Gulf. I felt helpless.

Equally vivid is the memory of the first report of the lives lost that day. If you grow up here, you know people who work offshore on the rigs massed in the Gulf. It stopped me in my tracks. I thought of friends and hoped they were safe.

My sister called and asked if I was concerned about the environmental impact. My quick response: Absolutely! Published projection maps showed the spill drawing closer to the coast daily. The place in which we spent so many happy childhood days might never be the same.

I grew up in Mobile, a small port city. We built forts in the woods and played in the nearby creek. I spent summer days with my big sister on these same beaches. We fished for mullet and flounder at Cedar Point pier near Dauphin Island and Gulf State Park in Orange Beach.

I developed a passion for the Gulf and pursued an environmental degree in college motivated by the wish to protect the things I loved. Of course, there was no way to foresee that this would one day involve me in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

A dividing line now runs through my life -- as it does the lives of many Gulf residents. There's before and after. I now work for Ocean Conservancy (where I've also begun blogging about my experiences in 2010 and today). It's a great job that keeps me dialed in to each newly discovered impact traced to the spill. And, four years later, these effects continue to arrive steady as drum beats. In the past year we've learned that:

 Dolphins in Barataria Bay are suffering from severe health problems.
 The area surrounding the Deepwater Horizon well blowout at the bottom of the Gulf is larger than we knew -- 24 square kilometers, the same size as 4,500 football fields, stitched together
 Multiple scientific studies now show a critical health toll on offshore marine fish, including Bluefin tuna.

To restore the Gulf will take a comprehensive, holistic approach. We have to mitigate the environmental effects of the oil spill as well correct for prior problems triggered by stressors like pollution and overfishing. We have to consider the entire Gulf, from coast to deep sea to coastal communities.

Additionally, restoration projects simply don't make sense unless they're guided by the best available science. They should also be regional in nature, and not just piece-mealed together. A rigorous monitoring program should be built into each project with the ability to adapt to any changes.

Lastly, all projects should be fully vetted by the public. After all, the disaster affected Gulf Coast citizens at a very local level. They should have a voice in the restoration process. They've seen the progress made so far. They can see how far we have to go.

The Gulf of Mexico awaits its renewal of life.

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