Tuesday, May 4, 2010

BP and the Gulf Coast: The End of a Way of Life?

Having lived on the Gulf Coast of Alabama for nearly ten years, I am very familiar with the significant impact tourism and the seafood industry have on state revenue. The importance of the oysters, shrimp, crab and fish caught by the men and women of south Mobile County; the beaches and resorts and restaurants of south Baldwin County. Both play a significant role in the sustainability of the state; in fact, 33 percent of the state's total tourism revenue comes from these two southernmost counties.

During those ten years, I made many friends whose livelihoods depend direclty on either tourism or seafood - and in the days following the explosion and capsizing of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the spread of enough oil to equal four Exxon Valdez accidents per week, I have grown quite concerned for their futures. Hurricanes have come and gone and seafood dumping has waxed and waned, but through it all the small communities on the bayous, the rivers and the beaches have recovered and endured.

This time I fear things may be different, especially for the seafood harvesting community.

Beaches can be cleaned, restored and reopened; I've seen it many times. But wetlands, rivers and wildlife - what is the price that is going to be paid by the families who rely on them for survival?

Although I don't agree with the belligerent language of the Secretary of the Interior - keeping a boot on the throat of BP? - I think that BP does bear financial responsibility for the cleanup of the Gulf and its shoreline, and for compensating the families of the 11 workers never found. But will they held accountable for compensating the workers who are in very real danger of losing their livelihoods? I think back to the Exxon Valdez accident 21 years ago; compensation cases were dragged through the courts for years, awards were reduced, and some 600 residents of Alaska who were party to the suits passed away without ever seeing a resolution to the case.

Now, over two decades later, we have a different environmental catastrophe and I cannot help but wonder how the financial compensation and court cases will play out. A new bill has been introduced in Congress that would increase the limit - currently $75 million - for which a company would be responsible with a cleanup. But this doesn't address what sort of compensation there may be - or will be pursued - by the folks impacted by this disaster. How many millions or billions of dollars will BP have to pay out?

Can you really put a pricetag on what is happening in Alabama, or Mississippi, or Louisiana? And if you could, where will the money come from - higher prices at the BP pump?

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