By Paul Harrison, Environmental Defense Fund
A packed room of approximately 250 people in Pensacola, Fl. welcomed the first meeting of President Obama’s Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force on Nov. 8th. Impassioned speeches from Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi A. Drew emphasized the environmental, human, and economic need for not only fixing the damage caused directly by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, but also addressing the long-term decline of the Gulf of Mexico wetlands, barrier islands, and deep waters. Alabama Governor Bob Riley's Chief of Staff emphasized that any solutions must address the economic challenges of the Gulf Coast – with an emphasis on small businesses – including the ones hurt by the oil spill's impacts on tourism and fishing.
The main draw for attendees, however, were presentations by the Task Force's chair, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the Task Force’s new Executive Director, John H. Hankinson. Jackson spoke clearly and passionately about the big issues and challenges facing the effort (you can read her prepared statement here). She also talked about the importance of expediting construction of existing projects, while planning the full program. Hankinson introduced the group to his new team – drawn from multiple agencies – and his commitment to the deadlines and goals set out in the President’s Executive Order.
The stated agenda of the meeting – beyond introductions and setting of the Task Force’s agenda – was an opportunity for the community and stakeholders to work with EPA on a plan for regular, detailed two-way communication. Attendees broke out into facilitated workgroups to brainstorm, and all look forward to EPA putting the ideas it received into a plan for accessing and building the engagement and commitment of the assembled communities and stakeholders.