The phrases “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” were likely not given much thought by fishermen across the Gulf Coast before April 2010.
But, any angler who has followed the ongoing case being made by the Department of Justice against BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill certainly read the newspaper articles in early September littered with those two phrases. According to U.S District Judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the civil trial against the companies responsible for the largest oil spill in America’s history, BP committed a litany of negligent acts and used unsafe practices causing millions upon millions of barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf and subsequently across beaches, bays and marshes, some of which are oiled still.
How many millions are still to be determined by Barbier. The Justice Department is making the case that 4.2 million barrels came through the bent drill pipe nearly one mile below the Gulf’s surface. BP, of course, says it’s responsible for about half that amount while maintaining the spill was a series of unfortunate accidents it had little control over.
The finding of gross negligence means BP’s penalties under the Clean Water Act will swell to $4,300 per barrel, making the determination of how many barrels were released of extreme importance in settling what the ultimate civil fine will total. The fine could have been as low as $1,100 a barrel had BP not cut so many corners with willful disregard for the safety of its workers and the health of the Gulf. If BP’s estimate for barrels spilled is accurate, the fine will be about $10 billion for its gross negligence. That total could be in excess of $18 billion if the Justice Department is right.
Barbier is expected to rule on the spill’s totals in early 2015, weeks before the five-year anniversary of the accident that took 11 men from their families and sent the Gulf’s ecosystem and economies into a tail spin from which some have yet to recover. That decision is being anxiously awaited by state and federal agencies, conservation groups and coastal communities because it will determine how much money the RESTORE Act Council, states, counties, parishes and research institutes will have to spend on ecosystem and economic restoration efforts.
Every milestone, public engagement opportunity, judge’s decision and project announcement is an opportunity to reflect and be reminded of how the Gulf’s anglers, commercial fishermen, business owners and communities got to this point. Those who revel in the Gulf’s recreational bounty and make their living off its resources don’t need to be told by a judge BP was grossly negligent. The images of oil-soaked pelicans, beaches and marshes and the ongoing uncertainty about the future of fisheries remain fresh in many memories. The wounds that have healed are likely to be reopened for some next April as media attention focuses on the state of the Gulf five years since gross negligence caused tragedy.
There is also opportunity to reflect on how so many concerned about the impacts of the oil spill and the decades of habitat loss in the Gulf joined together to implore Congress to make sure that the penalties from the spill came back to repair the ecosystems and communities damaged the most. Recreational fishing and hunting certainly suffered at BP’s hands, which is why so many sportsmen across the country united to push for passage of the RESTORE Act.
Trips were made to Washington by avid outdoorsmen to talk directly with Congressional staff. Businesses that support hunting and fishing joined arms and talked about how healthy habitats throughout the Gulf are essential for them to thrive and be capable of employing millions of Americans. Sportsmen’s organizations found common ground with environmental groups who also wanted spill fines to improve fishing habitat and restore ecosystems.
Despite Congressmen from outside the Gulf(even some in the region) and some state officials insisting the RESTORE Act had no chance of passing, hunters and fishermen leaned harder and harder until Congress made the prudent choice and passed the bill.
More than two years since the bill passed, the time has come again for hunters and fishermen to continue to be actively involved in the recovery and sustainability of the Gulf. The states are soliciting project ideas this fall that they can begin working on and can submit to the Restore Council for consideration for funding.
All of the projects and initiatives needed to make Gulf fishing better, from restoring marshes, mangroves and barrier islands to better management and science to education programs to needed repairs and expansion of docks, boat launches and artificial reefs are all eligible for funding. The states have asked for recommendations. They recognize how important recreational fishing is to coastal economies.
As the picture becomes clearer about how large the funding source may be, there is certainly time for recreational fishermen to reflect and appreciate the work it took to secure the funds. However, the harder task is ensuring the needs of fish and fishermen are addressed with those funds.