Requiem for the Gulf

04/14/2011 06:34 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2011

It may be hard to believe, but April 20, 2011, marks one year since BP began decimating the Gulf of Mexico with its negligent dumping of oil and dispersant into our waterways and communities. In the coming days you'll find the government, media and even BP revisiting the Gulf marking the date as an anniversary of sorts, like it was with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina or the one-year anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake. They'll all be engaged in the perfunctory homage to an unfortunate event wholly past, a time to shake heads and promise a better future and brighter days on the Gulf and a lesson-learned commitment to better practices. And that's because BP and our government would like you to believe that the oil spill ended on July 15th when, after 86 days of uncontrolled destruction, BP finally capped its well.

But if there's any lesson to be learned, it is that the BP oil spill is not a thing of the past -- it's very much an ongoing tragedy that, as prior massive oil spills have taught us well, will continue for many years to come. As scientists, fishery managers and environmentalists are unanimously pointing out, we should expect that with the discharge of 250 million gallons of crude oil, the application of 1.8 million gallons of toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf, and a decades long legacy of industry abuse in the Gulf, full restoration could easily become nothing but a pipe dream. And with that in mind, perhaps this one-year commemoration should instead be viewed as more of a memorial than anything else.

Our nation has seen oil disasters before. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound and after the Santa Barbara spill, it took a couple of years for fisheries to collapse, but they did collapse, and those in the media who reported that "maybe things weren't quite as bad as initially thought" were dead wrong. Right now, we've got a number of media outlets faithfully and uncritically reporting what the federal government and even BP have been saying: The Gulf is resilient, that it appears not have suffered as badly as we thought, that the fish, air, water and people along the Gulf coast are, so far, perfectly safe. But, to spend any amount of time in the communities that were most impacted, it isn't long before you realize that those who say that the oil is gone and we are recovering are either lying to cover their own liability or sitting in blissful ignorance.

It's been reported this week in the New York Times that the Gulf of Mexico is a complex system, and that -- despite bland government and BP assurances of safety -- it's simply too soon to tell just how the Gulf has been impacted and what the full extent of the damage is. That take is essentially correct, and while BP moves on (undoubtedly to sow the seeds of their next catastrophe), it's incumbent upon the EPA, the Obama administration, and other stakeholders to build a bulwark of safeguards to prevent future catastrophes from being visited on the people of the Gulf Coast and America's other vulnerable coastlines.

We should, at the very minimum, implement recommendations from The National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The most important of these focus on industry leasing and regulations standards, which must be at least as stringent as those in other industrialized, oil-producing nations in Europe -- which require blow-out preventers and incident response plans from leaseholders. Additionally, the Department of the Interior should create rigorous, transparent, and meaningful rules and regulations regarding drilling and exploration -- not to mention actually enforcing existing regulations -- and immediately begin creating better oil-spill response plans. Finally, the Commission's recommendation that the EPA and National Guard should establish distinct plans and procedures for rapidly and effectively responding to a major oil spill must be acted upon this year.

We know that these measures are needed now: As the big oil companies seek out more and more fossil fuel in US waters, they will protect not only the Gulf Coast, but all coastal areas potentially impacted by oil exploration and extraction. We know that people, communities and economies, once hit by spills of this magnitude, may never recover, and simply must be protected. The industry has proven time and time again that oil spills will happen. Industry has also proven that it does not have sufficient worst-case scenario plans, nor the technology necessary to prevent large, catastrophic spills from happening.

We must do better. If we fail to implement effective plans and safeguards; if we fail to enforce of existing laws -- like the Clean Water Act -- we'll see more memorials for dead, oil-soaked bodies of water. The oil and gas industry will continue to gamble, risk-free, with our environment, our economy, our lives and our livelihoods.

The people of the Gulf Coast have suffered enough at the hands of a government that continues to put the profits of the oil and gas industry over the health and economic well-being of its citizens. It's time we demand a better future for the Gulf Coast.