Remembering the Summer of 2010

This blog was written Tammy Herrington, Deputy Director, Mobile Baykeeper late last summer in the weeks just after the BP Oil Disaster.

I wrote this story last June before the well was capped, and there are still more questions than answers about how this disaster will affect the Gulf Coast long-term.  How long will tar continue to wash up along our beaches and into our marshes?  What will the long-term affects be to our fisheries and the Gulf ecosystem?  Will we lose entire species?  Already, lives have been lost along with countless businesses in a season that crippled our coastal economy.   

While many outside of our region have moved on, those of us along the Gulf continue to wonder how long we will continue to see effects from this disaster.  What we ask is that you unite with us.  Ask your Congressional leaders to send the BP fine dollars back to the Gulf Coast, to fund restoration and long-term studies on how a spill of this magnitude will affect our region by going to http://saveourgulf.org/updates/stand-gulf-coast-waterkeepers.  Help us make sure the Gulf beats this disaster in the end.

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In the beginning, watching news of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf was like a slow unfolding hurricane.  In the wake of our Katrina experience, we along the Gulf Coast are experts at waiting for a hurricane.  However, unlike a hurricane , this gulf disaster has been a slow excruciating onslaught which feels more like an invasion than a storm.  There is no end so far to this invasion, nor do we yet comprehend the extent of the damage it will cause to this area we love. 

I work for Mobile Baykeeper.  Our Executive Director, Casi Callaway, is someone I admired long before I met her, and she has become not only my boss but a dear friend.  We have an amazing team, and I feel lucky every day to have this job I love.  When the severity of the oil leak began to unfold, it slowly began to seep in to all of us the gravity of the situation and how important it was for us to learn as much as we could to become immediately involved in the recovery effort.  Personally, it has sometimes been very difficult to keep my emotions in check.  I moved to Mobile to be close to the water, and my family spends many hours on the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay and the many rivers that drain into those waters.  I have raised my children with a love for the beaches, the estuaries, and all that they offer us.  My daughters are nine and eleven, and we spent our Spring Break this year travelling the coast of Florida and Alabama all the way from Wakulla Springs to back to Dauphin Island.  At the end of a beautiful week of family time, scenic vistas and a great bounty from our local waterways, we vowed to spend more time on the water this year.  Little did we know what was about to unfold.  On the day that oil washed into Dauphin Island, my daughter’s best friend stood in the Gulf with tears streaming down her face.  Explaining to my children and others how this has happened and answering questions on how long it will take to restore our home has been one of the most challenging things I have had to face.

Mobile Baykeeper has faced many challenges since the oil leak began.  The week that the severity of the situation was realized, our small staff of six answered over 200 phone calls in one morning from people who had questions, wanted to volunteer to help and wanted us to intervene on behalf of our area.  We needed to meet some very basic challenges, like how to manage the deluge of phone calls we were receiving while also managing to do the work that needed to be done (including maintaining our normal work unrelated to the oil disaster).  Getting organized and asking volunteers to help allowed us to begin working on the big questions, such as what is the chemical makeup of the dispersant being used; what will it do long term to our environment and our health.  Some important questions simply had to be put on hold, like how would we pay for the work we were now doing in a year where our normal clean water strategic plan did not include an oil disaster in the Gulf; how do we budget a new phone system to handle hundreds of calls; and a host of other logistical concerns.  Our sudden new staffing requirements, office space expansion, consulting fees, etc. were not anticipated in our budget for 2010.  

Because of the volume of calls from people wanting to help, we began working with the State agencies, the Coast Guard and other non-profits to determine how to best utilize volunteers. BP put rules in place early on that no true volunteers would be allowed to do any cleanup work that put them in direct contact with oil.  This made our work challenging, but Mobile Baykeeper and our local partner, Alabama Coastal Foundation began first to institute pre-event beach cleanups to remove debris, and were later able to develop a Volunteer Field Observer training to allow local volunteers who know our waterways best to go out twice a week looking for oil or any wildlife in distress so that we could monitor our entire shoreline for spill related problems.  Alabama was the first state able to utilize volunteers in this way thanks to our initiative with this group.  We continue to release weekly updates to our volunteers who now number greater than 4500, and the calls continue to flood into our office from around the country with people who want to help the Gulf Coast recover. The outpouring of support for Mobile Baykeeper and all of us along the Gulf Coast gives us a hope that through continued sustained cooperation, we will somehow manage to reclaim our beautiful gulf and shoreline.

Each week brings a new challenge for our area.  Recently we began receiving reports that local property owners were being told by contractors that they were responsible for cleanup of their own property – that BP was only cleaning up public lands.  We fought for these property owners by going to Unified Command to ask for help in how to address this problem and also by going before Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke when he visited Mobile.  We have continued to ask for less dispersant to be used, which could have profound health impacts on our area and more focus on protection of our local shoreline, with cleanup as a secondary concern.  Our goal to prevent the oil from reaching the shore altogether is challenged by use of dispersants which drop the oil throughout the entire water column, making the boom useless as a last line of resort to protect our shores.  We are now watching large deep water fish and sharks coming into the shallow waters closer to shore in an attempt to flee the oil deep within the Gulf of Mexico.  This is just a preliminary effect, and we know there will be others.  It is our job to ensure that restoration efforts are discussed as soon as we can safely begin to restore our resources.

Another concern for us is how to fill in the gaps for water and air quality testing in our area.  Some days the smell of oil is strong, and we open our doors to the overwhelming odor of kerosene hanging in the air.  We know that in Alaska there were greatly increased incidents of cancer in the years following the Exxon Valdez spill.  Mobile Baykeeper wishes to ensure that we are testing both the air and water quality to ensure that our residents are safe.  We want transparency by BP, our state agencies charged with protecting the environment and our health, and our government.  But, most importantly, we want the oil to stop flowing into our waterways.  Without an end point, it is difficult to know what we are up against.

Mobile Baykeeper’s message for years has been that you can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment; that the two go hand in hand.  Watching barrel after barrel of oil seep into the Gulf of Mexico, and the over 800,000 gallons of toxic dispersants added to the mix is beyond our worst nightmare.  This disaster is destroying the waterways and our regional economy along with it.  The oyster processing plants in Bayou La Batre shut down weeks ago, leaving hundreds in South Alabama out of work.  As oil made its way onto Alabama’s beaches, it not only destroyed our tourism industry but our fisheries and our hope that things will be better anytime soon.  This week, the shrimp boats on Dauphin Island brought up net after net of oil from the bottom of the Mississippi Sound, effectively killing the last of our shrimp industry.  Families all along the Gulf Coast, some of whom have passed down their family businesses for generations are now watching in horror without any real hope that they will be able to resume business – perhaps for years.

As we began to see oil making its way toward Alabama, Mobile Baykeeper was also planning its largest fundraiser of the year, a triathlon, which includes a swim in Mobile Bay.  We had racers calling our office daily to see if the swim was on.  We knew we had to ensure their health and anxiously awaited tests which would tell us if the water was safe to swim in.  The Friday before the event, one of our Field observers called with a report that she thought she had found oil in Mobile Bay, close to the area where the swim would occur.  There was also the strong odor of oil in the air, and we called in the EPA to test the air quality to ensure the safety of the racers.  We called officials from every state agency charged with protecting our health, to get water quality testing results and to ask for advice on how to proceed.  When all of the tests came back fine, as a last line of defense, we sent out the Mobile Baykeeper boat, armed with one of our board members and a Waterkeeper from another area of Alabama to check out the water south of us to make sure we were safe to proceed.  The morning of the race, when the gun went off and swimmers began to pour into Mobile Bay, it felt like a victory.  We know it may be our last race for quite some time where it is safe to swim in the bay we know and love, but this year we celebrated as we beat the oil on race day.  We all hope we can beat it in the end.

Tammy Herrington
Deputy Director , Mobile Baykeeper

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