In the wake of the largest oil spill in US history, Oxfam America has invested in long-term solutions for fragile environments and vulnerable populations.
By Jeffrey Buchanan, Senior Domestic Policy Advisor at Oxfam America.
Five years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, taking the lives of 11 workers. Over the next 87 days people across the world were mesmerized as an estimated 4.2 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. During those months, BP used over 1.8 million gallons of dispersants to sink the oil; substances believed to be harmful for people and wildlife. Much of the oil is still out there in the ecosystem today; the tarballs that wash ashore after every storm are just tiny signs of millions of pounds of toxic, oily debris.
The full toll of the damage is still unknown, but as the years march on, signs of destruction mount up for both people and wildlife:
- Independent research has documented damage to countless species—from oysters to sea turtles to dolphins to coral to speckled trout.
- Fishing businesses face economic decline as the catch of shrimp, crabs, and oysters has dropped dramatically in some areas, though it has rebounded in others.
- People who worked in initial cleanup efforts report facing strange illnesses, which some experts believe are linked to oil or dispersants.
Five years later, it’s becoming evident that the long-term impact of the oil spill is profound and enduring, even for an area used to dealing with disaster.
Learning from history to build a better future
For many years, Oxfam America has been working in the Gulf Coast to help restore resiliency to the communities and the ecosystems. In the wake of the spill, we’ve taken some innovative approaches to help restore the environmental, economic and social damage of this tragedy.
Most importantly, we worked hard to learn from the recent recovery experience after Hurricane Katrina— when billions of dollars flowed to the region, but didn’t reach the most vulnerable communities. Instead of watching as workers and businesses from outside the region benefit from these funds, we believe we can create systems to help local residents gain skills to lead the restoration of the communities and coastlines they love so dearly.
Working with the Obama Administration, US Congress, and state leadership in Mississippi and Louisiana over the last five years, Oxfam and community partners have been at the forefront of pushing for new policies to ensure that the community benefits from restoring coastal habitats:
- We pushed for passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012, to redirect BP’s Clean Water Act fines back to restoring the Gulf. Oxfam pushed for key elements to ensure 1) restoration investments provide local workers from disadvantaged communities with the skills needed to take part in coastal restoration jobs, and 2) encourage restoration contractors to hire workers from impacted communities.
- We worked with state legislators to pass “First Hire” laws in Louisiana and Mississippi. These laws forge new relationships between contractors and local workforce development systems, requiring them to review qualified local workers before making new hires.
- We are piloting a new Coastal Restoration Empowerment Program in Houma, LA working with state and local agencies that offers free training, preparing women and disadvantaged workers for high wage jobs that will be needed in restoration projects, especially once the RESTORE Act money flows to the region.
Recently, Oxfam—together with the Nature Conservancy and Corps Network—released a new report, Building the Gulf, which details best practices in promoting community economic benefits as part of the Gulf’s historic coastal restoration investments. The Gulf Coast states regularly rank among the highest in rates of poverty, unemployment, income inequality and, according to a recent Oxfam study, the percentage of their workforce earning poverty-level wages. Federal, state, and local policymakers and stakeholders now have a unique opportunity to build new pathways out of poverty through connecting disadvantaged and displaced workers with new skills and high wage jobs as the region’s ecosystem restoration begins to ramp up.
Five years out, we should take time to remember those who were lost and mourn the damage to our coast. We should also seize the moment to do things differently for our coastal communities.