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Deepwater Horizon Five Years Later — Restoring the Mississippi coast starts with a strong foundation

Elizabeth Barber

Elizabeth Barber

Five years ago, on April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men and kicking off the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history. When the well was finally capped 87 days later, the oil had already done unprecedented damage to Gulf of Mexico waters, wildlife, and fisheries, as well as the livelihoods and businesses that depend on a healthy Gulf Coast. In the wake of the tragedy, leaders at the national, state, regional, and local levels – from President Obama to Gulf governors to town mayors – promised not to rest until coastal resources were restored, tourism and seafood industries were flourishing, and communities were protected from future disasters.

Today, coastal Mississippi businesses, communities and ecosystems are still feeling the impacts of the disaster. The National Wildlife Federation recently released a report that assesses how 20 Gulf species are faring in the wake of the tragedy (www.nwf.org/fiveyearslater). The report catalogues disturbing scientific findings that have emerged in a variety of species from dolphins and killifish to tuna and red snapper, all of which serve as mainstays of the Gulf food web and are important to support the region’s economy.

The tragedy’s full impact may not be known for many years to come, but the good news is that efforts to repair and restore Gulf Coast resources are finally getting underway. Fines and penalties from the disaster provide Gulf States with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only address damage from the spill but to make the Gulf Coast healthier and more resilient than it was before April 20, 2010.  In Mississippi, we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic.

The DEQ held a Community Conversations public input meeting in Bay St. Louis last year to gain public input on priorities for Gulf restoration.

The DEQ held a Community Conversations public input meeting in Bay St. Louis last year to gain public input on priorities for Gulf restoration.

In our state, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is driving recovery efforts with the support of Gov. Phil Bryant. To date, DEQ has demonstrated a solid commitment toward meaningful, science-based Gulf restoration by establishing a new Office of Restoration and using a $3.6 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (http://www.nfwf.org/gulf/Pages/GEBF-Mississippi.aspx#.VSgPyfnF98E) to develop a comprehensive restoration plan for the coast.

Gov. Bryant recently reinforced his support that restoration is good business. In February, he created the Mississippi Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council, made up of citizens, scientists and seafood industry leaders who are working together to determine how best to protect, preserve and boost Mississippi’s critical oyster industry.

Finally, several of the early restoration projects Mississippi has invested in show just how interconnected our coastal environment, economy and communities are. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources through its Coastal Preserves Program is putting people to work removing invasive plants in order to benefit fish and wildlife that support our seafood, recreation and tourism industries. The Coastal Stream and Habitat Initiative led by The Nature Conservancy is generating conservation and restoration design plans for nine coastal watersheds by directly engaging the communities and citizens along the way. Projects like these are proving that investments in environmental restoration are investments in our economy and in our communities.

Though Mississippi and the Gulf Coast are only just beginning a long journey of restoration, having a strong foundation to guide recovery efforts for the long-term is vital. Much hard work lies ahead and many difficult decisions remain for our local, state, and national leaders. The best way for them to keep their promises to restore the Gulf is to push forward on environmental restoration that achieves a healthier Mississippi Coast and Gulf of Mexico and a vibrant economy for future generations.

Every Mississippian has a role to play in restoring our coast. Efforts to restore our environment and economy will only work if they reflect the values and priorities of the community. On the five-year memorial of the oil spill, I urge you to stay engaged in Mississippi’s restoration efforts by visiting http://www.restore.ms/, where you can sign up for recovery updates and find out how to get involved.

» Elizabeth Barber, vice president of Barber and Mann, Inc., is a certified wildlife biologist. She coordinates the MS Environment Focus Group, a grassroots coalition of 18 non-government conservation and community organizations working together in Mississippi for meaningful, science-based Gulf ecosystem restoration in order to achieve a vibrant environment and economy. Contact her at liz@barberandmann.com. 

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