At our first community meetings following the BP oil spill, it was hard to know what to expect. Gulf Coast communities, including my hometown of New Orleans, were still recovering from the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Like the rest of the country, they were also coping with the worst economic downturn since World War II. In the midst of all this, they were hit with the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history. This was a community that had every right to be angry. Yet, again and again, those who turned out to the meetings asked, “How can I help?”
Gulf Coast residents deserve an answer to that question. From hiring local workers for water and coastal cleanups to EPA’s interactions with local scientists, our efforts rely on the input of the people of the Gulf Coast. The same is true as we move from emergency response into long-term restoration. In October, President Obama formed the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. When he appointed me to take charge of the Task Force, he made clear that our work would continue to count on the people who know these areas best.
This is about more than just providing transparency or giving everyone a seat at the table. That’s because the Task Force is about more than just cleaning up after the BP spill. As someone who grew up on the Gulf Coast, I know that the challenges facing this ecosystem go back much further than the spill. A full restoration will not be possible unless we address the environmental problems that have plagued this region for many years.
Full restoration must address critical issues like wetlands loss. The Gulf Coast has 30 percent of our nation’s coastal marsh and suffers 90 percent of the coastal marsh loss in the continental U.S. Every 40 minutes a football field-sized stretch turns to open water — leaving the Gulf without natural pollution filters; leaving birds and aquatic life without their habitat; and leaving Gulf Coast communities without natural buffers that protect them from storm surges and flooding.
Full restoration should consider the impact of excess nutrient pollution, which causes the growth of green algae on the surface of the waters and removes oxygen from below. By leaving the waters uninhabitable for aquatic life, nutrient pollution has made the hypoxic area — or dead zone — in the northern Gulf of Mexico the largest in the United States.
Full restoration must also understand that the ecosystem’s health is critical to the region’s economy. The Gulf Coast’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry depends on clean waters for an abundant catch, as does the robust tourism business that employs 1.7 million people in the region.
We need working partnerships in which the expertise and unique experiences of local officials, tribal groups, regional advocates and neighborhood residents are brought to bear on those problems. The best restoration plans will come from the Gulf to Washington, not from Washington to the Gulf. At our first meeting of the Task Force held earlier this month in Pensacola, Florida, hundreds of people from across the area came together to begin the transition from coastal response to coastal recovery. Instead of asking questions, state and local governments, businesses, tribes, scientists, and citizens showed us how they could help by showcasing ambitious plans and sharing their invaluable experience.
During the BP spill, we “lost” the Gulf for a period of several weeks. We lost the use of valuable fishing grounds. We lost months of tourism dollars that communities count on. And we lost the intangible things — the benefits of having a thriving ecosystem that is a vital part of the Gulf Coast community. During the spill, we learned how difficult and costly it was to do without those things for a few months. That was a small price compared to what will happen if we lose the Gulf for good. With the BP spill and these growing challenges, that is the path we are heading down now.
This Task Force is a chance for us to change directions on that path. It is an opportunity to restore this ecosystem and reap all the benefits that come with it. It is an opportunity for us to work together – to help each other – and move today’s response effort in the Gulf to lasting recovery that will benefit the community and our country for generations.
Lisa P. Jackson is the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Chair of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.