The government’s newest oil spill task force held its first meeting in Pensacola on Monday, drawing hundreds of government and community representatives from across the Gulf Coast.
The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force was created by President Barack Obama in October with the goal of coordinating federal, state and local officials involved in spill recovery.
“I see this as an opportunity for this region and all the world … to develop a plan for the Gulf of Mexico that reaches across barriers and addresses the needs of the entire region,” said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who was appointed chairwoman of the task force.
But the meeting drew mixed reactions from some attendees who complained the task force’s goals and authority were ill-defined.
“It felt like an enormous waste of time, to be frank,” said Chasidy Hobbs of Emerald Coastkeeper, a local environmental group.
“There was a lot of talk about needing to be bottom-up, but there’s really no formal structure for the public involvement,” Hobbs said.
“It felt, to me, like a way for the task force to say, ‘We had these meetings,’ then let people come out and vent.”
The meeting included introductions from about a dozen state and federal officials appointed to head the task force, followed by several public comment sessions.
More than 250 attendees packed into the morning meeting at 11 a.m., but by closing discussions at 3:15 p.m., the crowd had thinned to about half its initial size.
Attendees voiced frustration that many areas of key concern — such as health issues, natural resource damage assessment and funding recovery projects — fall under the authority of existing task forces and committees.
In comment sessions, moderators stressed that the meeting was the first of many and that there was no pressure to come up with the entire recovery plan that day.
Escambia County District 4 Commissioner Grover Robinson IV was more positive about the meeting, saying it gave county and city officials an opportunity to meet directly with top EPA officials. The meeting was the first step of what will be a long and difficult recovery, Robinson said.
“I think with the meeting today, we are clearly in the beginning of the process,” Robinson said. “It’s a start, and we continue to need lots of citizens to participate.”
Task force goals
The task force was created by executive order as an advisory body tasked with engaging state and local stakeholders on the Gulf of Mexico and coordinating their efforts with federal agencies.
Task force functions listed in the executive order:
- Coordinate intergovernmental efforts.
- Support the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.
- Give local stakeholders, communities and other Gulf Coast officials an opportunity to share their needs and viewpoints.
- Work with existing federal and state advisory committees.
- Draft a Gulf of Mexico restoration strategy for the president within 12 months.
The task force does not deal directly with public health concerns, seafood safety or budgetary issues, which are handled by other oil spill groups, officials said.
Jackson said the task force is better defined as an avenue for people on the Gulf Coast to have a say in the key areas needing ecological recovery.
“We’re not charged with finding sources of money, but to find areas of need,” Jackson said.
More than 12 government officials have been appointed to lead the task force, including officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Justice and other agencies, as well as representatives from the governors’ offices of five Gulf Coast states.
Task force member Mimi A. Drew, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Florida officials hope the task force can help restore the area’s most crucial economic engines.
“The tourism and seafood industry here in Florida are really the backbone of our economy,” Drew said. “The goal is to restore consumer confidence. … I think this task force will give us an opportunity to start heading in that direction.”
Much of the criticism in comment sessions focused on who was not included on the task force — such as academic leaders, local government representatives, and environmental advocacy groups.
“There’s not a single local official on the task force. As you begin this restoration, hopefully each state will put local elected officials on that,” said Glen Whitley, president of the National Association of Counties.
“All of our issues are different. There is a lot of uniqueness to it, and if you try to address it all as a whole, a lot of issues are going to end up getting lost,” Whitley said.
EPA head Jackson walked room to room during comment sessions, at times nodding as attendees voiced frustration. During closing comments she said the task force would work to immediately address the concerns voiced throughout the day.
“We have a tremendous debt of trust to earn with this group,” she said.