April 20th marked the four-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This horrific accident killed 11 people and spilled over four million barrels of oil into the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. The effect on bird populations in the area is just now being realized. This week, the New York Times reported on a peer-reviewed study that estimates between 600,000-800,000 coastal waterbirds were killed in the first three months of the 2010 BP oil disaster1. This figure represents only a portion of the total bird mortality that occurred as a result of the spill. The study, which uses two different modeling techniques, is the first public estimate of a portion of bird mortality caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We know that the ecosystem is deeply damaged and will take years to begin to recover.
Currently, three separate efforts are helping to restore the ecosystem. First, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) has been entrusted with $2.6 billion to spend on restoration projects in the five affected states over the next several years. Audubon has been deeply involved in the process and has already received significant funding from NFWF for shorebird habitat restoration and other work in Florida and Mississippi. A new round of funding from NFWF will be released later this year, and we hope some of the funding will be designated to help restore and conserve the vital habitat Audubon has prioritized for birds.
The second effort is the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) and the fines that come with it. The NRDA is a deep scientific look at a damaged ecosystem that can take years to complete. Once the damages are fully understood by the federal government, the polluter—in this case BP—will have to pay to restore the damaged ecosystem to its state before the spill.
Finally, and most importantly, is the RESTOREprocess. Audubon and our members helped design and pass the RESTORE Act into law. RESTORE ensures that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act violations owed by BP—which could be upwards of $15 billion, depending on the outcome of the civil trial—are distributed to the states that were damaged by the BP spill to support restoration efforts. The final stage of the civil trial will begin in January 2015. We hope for a speedy ruling, but so far BP has fought the courts and the Justice Department at every turn.
Once the whole disaster is fully understood, well over $20 billion will go to the Gulf of Mexico region for environmental restoration. There are a lot of steps in between, but Audubon has a full team of people both in DC and in the region involved in every aspect of this critical effort on behalf of some of America’s most important habitats for birds.
1 Schrope, Mark, “Still Counting Gulf Spill’s Dead Birds,” New York Times, May 5, 2014.