In June, Waterkeeper Mark Mattson travelled to the Southern United States Gulf Region to visit local Waterkeeper organizations working to Save Our Gulf from the ravages of the BP oil disaster. This is his account:
The Gulf of Mexico is dying. This is obvious to anyone who visits the coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida. The blackened beaches, floating tar blobs, dying dolphins, sickly sperm whales and contaminated birds are but the most visible signs of death.
Beyond these shocking sights, there is even more damage from skyrocketing toxic concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon in, on and under the sands. These toxins are in the fish and birds and mammals. They threaten to turn the gulf waterfront into an industrial zone pock-marked with warning signs: "Keep Out", "No fishing", "No swimming".
What is going on right now in the Gulf of Mexico is the painful process of experiencing the death and destruction of a beloved treasure. A difficult-to-watch video created by our Hurricane Creekkeeper documents this real-world science fiction nightmare.
A visit to the Gulf right now foreshadows the kind of grim future that confronts many of our waterfront communities. The beaches are controlled by BP because, somehow, their pollution grants them ownership.
Temporary local workers cover up the most obvious pollution and are under strict orders not to speak to anyone. The men and women who dig and sweep the oil blobs into plastic bags start in the most prominent public places but rarely get to the remote and ecologically important areas.
Beach-goers who walk in and around the "Do Not Enter" signs find their feet coated in orange oil stains. Swimmers or waders come out of the water with splotches stuck to their bodies. There is a light sheen of oil everywhere. Hidden from view, layers of oil collect under the white sand, seeping deeper with every change of tide.
We did not see systematic sampling for chemicals. No one in government or industry seems to be sharing scientific data like sample results to see if things are getting better or worse. As a result, no one can independently assess if abatement efforts on the ocean are working.
No serious efforts are being made to help the public understand the impacts of the spreading oil on fish, mammals, or humans. To an outsider, it seems the clean-up is more a public relations game where health and safety are measured by the number of black blobs appearing on the beaches.
And it will get worse. This dying Gulf Of Mexico actually justifies more oil wells and greater environmental gambles in the future. A compromised Gulf of Mexico offers fewer jobs in the fishing industry, closed and degraded beaches, and only golf courses and amusement parks for the tourists. A diminished Gulf of Mexico means the trillion-dollar oil industry becomes king. The number of drilling wells could triple as the rest of the gulf collapses.
With less to protect, industry and government will produce new "risk assessments" that tout the economic advantages of expanding the drilling in the Gulf. The surfers, swimmers, fisherman and wildlife that depend on the Gulf for enjoyment, recreation, tourism, food and water to survive will need to find a new home.
One last remaining hope in all of this is the work of the Waterkeeper groups and other community organizations that still fight on, demanding answers, working towards clean-up, saving animals, birds and fish. Groups like Emerald Coastkeeper and Mobile Baykeeper cannot stop.
Here at home, we must take precautions against similar disasters. We need environmental laws that protect people, not corporations. We need environmental processes that reject "risk assessments" in favour of enforcing minimum standards of behaviour. We need government that relies on science and independent public servants, instead of public relations campaigns.
We can avoid such a monstrous environmental, legal and political disaster if we protect our rights to swim drink and fish at all costs, with no exceptions and no gambles. That is the only guarantee for ourselves, for our wildlife and for the generations to come.