The struggle has just begun


Congratulate yourselves. It appears we have finally stopped forcing a couple of million gallons of oil a day down the Gulf of Mexico’s throat.

One seat-of-the-pants government assessment calculates that out of some 175 million gallons of spilled oil, just 52 million gallons of oil are left in the Gulf of Mexico. If such a crude calculation has any validity, then what remains is “only” five times the quantity of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez — the spill we still haven’t recovered from, two decades after.

Only the ignorant or the heartless play such silly numbers games with the Gulf of Mexico and the nation that depends on it.

It’s like a mother proudly proclaiming her child has now stopped drinking gasoline and the doctor can go home — everything will be fine.

Yes, the Gulf, that strapping specimen of life that it is, still has a heartbeat. It survives in spite of ingesting a dose of oil that would have already killed a lesser body.

But the Gulf’s struggle to survive the surge of poisons that is now circulating through its systems has just begun. Previous spills have taught us that the widespread and most serious impacts don’t become evident until the media get tired and go home.

What we do now will determine whether the Gulf remains North America’s most biologically diverse ocean and the most productive fishery on the shores of the Lower 48, or whether it deteriorates into an invalid, crippled by its violent effort to purge a flood of oil that dwarfs anything this nation has seen.

Certainly there’ll be problems we can’t yet predict, requiring solutions we haven’t yet devised. But we know to do what any good doctor would in such a situation: We must bolster the Gulf’s immune system, as soon as possible.

The Gulf’s ability to fight off such threats to its well-being has already been compromised by the long-running catastrophe of the past 100 years.

The Gulf’s great organs of reproduction and productivity — its marshes, its sea grasses, its oyster reefs — have been reduced to fragments and tatters.

If only a fraction of those lost habitats could be restored in the next few years, the increased flow of life could overwhelm the losses of this spill.

In Mobile Bay, which had already suffered more than a 75 percent reduction of its most productive habitats, there’s a bold effort to restore 100 miles of oyster reef and thousands of acres of marsh and sea grasses over the next three years. If efforts such as this catch fire across the Gulf, they could kick-start recovery of Gulf ecosystems, turning what could have been decades of decline into a dramatic reblooming of Gulf productivity.

We’ll need the nation’s help to do this, but it would be foolish to expect that the national news media or the federal government will continue to lead the battle to save the Gulf. They, like most of the country, are quietly looking for an exit from this long nightmare.

If those of us closest to the spill lose focus, if we don’t aggressively push our legislative delegation to push for appropriate remedies, and if we don’t use our money wisely to improve the health of the Gulf, then we can blame this nightmare on no one but ourselves.

We know what we can do. The question that remains is whether we’ll summon the will to do it, or slink off amid deceitful congratulations that the Gulf has survived.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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