01/25/2011 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nonprofit Groups To Bird-Dog Spill Report Proposals

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Jan. 24, 2011 edition.)

Coastal advocates like much, though not all, of what they've read in the national, oil-spill commission report released this month, and instead of stashing the document in a desk drawer, they plan to stay engaged and speak up about its ideas. The commission's suggestions are something like well-intended, New Year's resolutions, and coastal supporters want to make sure they're not forgotten.

One of the report's biggest recommendations is that 80% of any Clean Water Act penalties against BP--which are likely to be based on the number of barrels spilled--be devoted to Gulf ecosystems restoration. Rehabbing the ecosystem could cost $15 billion to $20 billion, or a minimum of $500 million annually over 30 years, the commission says. Private views are that Clean Water penalties against BP may end up being close to that amount.

National spill commission members Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, hosted a Jan. 12 New Orleans forum on findings. Wintery weather kept several other commission members away. Boesch noted that the report was finished ahead of schedule and came in under budget, and said the commission had discussed its results with President Obama.

Boesch said the spill was the shared fault of industry and officials, and was an accident that was many years in the making. "Our government let it happen," he said. To prevent a similar event, "we need new, stricter regulations on offshore drilling that are at least as strong as those in Norway and the UK. "

Beinecke cited systemic problems in the drilling industry, especially with respect to safety, and said company safety practices vary tremendously. In addition to tougher regulations, the commission recommends the establishment of a self-policing, safety institute like those in the nuclear, chemical and aviation industries, she said. An example is the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations created after the Three Mile Island plant accident in 1979.

In a question-and-answer session at the New Orleans forum, environmental activists and leaders of non-profit groups said that while BP's well was capped six months ago, they don't intend to let issues concerning health, the ongoing cleanup and spill claims fade.

Marine toxicologist Riki Ott, who lived through the Exxon Valdez spill as a commercial fisherwoman, said the Gulf cleanup was a "deja vu" experience or a look back for her. She questioned the wisdom of the "tradeoffs" described in the commission report of using inadequately understood dispersants to get rid of BP oil. She said 4 million to 5 million people along the Gulf Coast were exposed to chemicals following the spill.

Ott supports the idea of increased oversight of offshore drilling, and said "nothing changes unless you hit the oil industry in their pockets." She said a positive development from the Valdez spill was a requirement that oil tankers be double hulled to prevent spills caused by punctures.

Robin Barnes, executive vice president at GNO, Inc., said she supports the commission's recommendation for more research and development in oil-spill response. Barnes said building a response infrastructure could create jobs and new opportunities for small businesses and local residents, including fishermen. Related technology and innovation developments could be housed on the coast and would generate revenue for the region, she said.

In the New Orleans Q and A session, Robin Young, a founder of Alabama-based Guardians of the Gulf, took the microphone, and said "health recommendations in the report are extremely vague." She said the spill's health effects have not been adequately assessed, and she sees no sense of urgency to examine them. Young said many coastal residents with spill-related ailments lack medical insurance and are running out of money as they visit physicians.

For its part, the commission said that lack of evidence about pre-existing medical conditions--which, it said, should have been collected for workers cleaning the water and coastline--limits attempts to assess the spill's health impacts.

Venice-based, health advocate Kindra Arnesen of the Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana said post-spill, medical issues remain significant, and she hopes the government won't lose sight of them. Last fall's opening of a mobile, childrens' medical unit in Plaquemines Parish--paid for by a non-profit group--was a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done, she said. After the forum, Arnesen said "the Venice area went from being a vibrant community last April to a group of hacking, coughing people in May."

Arnesen, a commercial fisherman's wife, worries about the future of the local seafood industry and hopes it doesn't deteriorate the way it did in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill, "when herring were just dropping to the water's floor." She fears that the worst of the spill's effects on Gulf fisheries will show up in years to come.

At the forum, Arnesen said "our seafood brand is tainted because people don't have confidence in it." She suggested that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency conduct sporadic, chemical tests on seafood on docks, and added "I don't mean just sniff-testing."

All in all, however, Arnesen said she was "totally impressed with the commission's report." After the forum, she said she viewed its findings as an honest attempt to address the impacts of the spill.

Arnesen said "before the rig exploded, I was a busy mother of two, running a restaurant, and an active member of my community, paying taxes. I trusted the government to take care of us." She continued "since the spill, I've been shaken by the level of deceit and propaganda from government," concerning air quality, health and seafood safety. She became frightened of the federal government.

"However, as I read the recommendations in the commission's report, I feel a level of honesty, finally, and that's something because without it we can't move forward," Arnesen said.

At the forum, Tom Costanza, peace and justice office director at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, said "the claims process is in crisis." He noted that the U.S. Senate homeland security and governmental affairs committee is scheduled to hold a Jan. 27 hearing to examine issues related to BP claims and coastal,social services.

Costanza said after the forum that fishermen are discouraged by low payments on their Gulf Coast Claims Facility applications, and "many of them aren't working, especially because we're not in shrimping season now." The coast has not been well served by centralized processing of GCCF claims in Dublin, Ohio, he said.

Costanza said that spill-related health and social concerns should not be diminished, and that it would be premature to reach conclusions about coastal conditions. He noted that Alaskan communities suffered for years from the consequences of the Valdez spill.

After the New Orleans forum, Arnesen in Venice praised the recommendation that 80% of any Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP be used to restore the coast. She advised that Gulf residents "keep attention on what's important, like the health crisis, and focus on making sure that recommendations in the report happen. If we can keep things honest, we have a real opportunity to make life better here." end