By Derek Brockbank, Director, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign.
It was the best of Louisiana; it was the worst of Louisiana. This past week, I had the opportunity to see the remarkable juxtaposition of the depressing, but necessary, ongoing efforts to clean BP oil from the beaches of Grand Isle and the hope for the coast that was generated by joining with hundreds of volunteers on a restoration project on Grand Terre.
Grand Isle and Grand Terre are both low-lying barrier islands about half a mile in width at their widest point and not much more than causeway in some places. They’re separated from each other by a half mile wide channel called Barataria Pass. They are hugely susceptible to coastal erosion and land loss and, by keeping the Gulf of Mexico out of Barataria Bay, are Louisiana’s first line of protection from hurricanes, storms and, yes, oil spills.
Both islands were heavily oiled from the BP oil disaster, but last week it was the Grand Isle beach that was still covered with machinery. After a day of meetings on Grand Isle, I went for a jog on the beach along the water’s edge. To my right was the Gulf of Mexico and countless pelicans diving for fish and perching on rocks, to my left was the wide beach of Grand Isle covered in trucks, backhoes and drills digging in the sand to find – and presumably remove – oil residue just below the surface. It was like running along a purgatory tight rope with the splendor of the gulf separated from the lingering effects of an industrial disaster by just the lapping waves and my footsteps.
The next day I joined over 150 volunteers at a restoration event on Grand Terre. Together the group planted thousands of grass plugs (Marshhay Cordgrass, aka Spartina, and Bitter Panicum) to prevent erosion and built a mile of fencing to trap sand and speed the development of protective dunes. I partnered with a grad student from Louisiana State who was getting her master’s degree in coastal restoration and was eager to get a job in her field that could both pay the bills and allow her to save the coast that she loved so much. I spoke to a retiree who wanted to make sure the land and the fishing were around for his grandkids. The hope for the coast was palpable.
As the BP civil trial heads into its third week, I like to think that these islands are good reflections of what the trial is really about. The cleanup at Grand Isle is a clear representation of what we need to prevent in the future. Holding BP fully accountable will show that an oil spill is not just a ‘cost of doing business’ in the gulf but something that must be avoided at all costs. On the other side, thanks to the RESTORE Act, restoration of barrier islands – like what was happening at Grand Terre but on much vaster scale – will be possible because of the fines and penalties BP must pay. So while the trial may get bogged down in technicalities and legal jargon, we must remind BP and the Department of Justice what the trial is really about: BP’s accountability and the need for restoration.