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April 20, 2016 marks six years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and unleashing the largest environmental disaster the United States has ever seen. The anniversary comes just two weeks after a federal judge approved a landmark $20 billion settlement between British Petroleum and the U.S. Department of Justice, the largest fine of its kind in history.
Audubon has been at work preparing the way for this moment since the day the tragic disaster occurred. During the 87 days the spill lasted and the months following, Audubon helped coordinate thousands of volunteers to help in the cleanup and monitoring of our coastlines and bird habitat in the Gulf of Mexico. In the years that followed, Audubon and our members helped craft and pass the RESTORE Act, legislation that ensured penalties paid by BP under this legal settlement would be sent to the damaged region. In the aftermath, Audubon has focused on stewardship for coastal birds, now at more than 200 sites across the Gulf Coast. We empower citizens and communities to protect terns and skimmers in nesting colonies, protect the access of plover chicks to their feeding grounds, and oversee critical waterbird colonies from Florida to Texas.
In order to understand the immediate and long-term effects on birds, Audubon scientists also developed the Audubon Coastal Bird Survey, a citizen scientist effort to monitor the health of coastal populations and provide a better accounting of these populations going forward. The program has been expanded across much of the Gulf Coast.
The Gulf Coast is an important breeding ground and migratory rest stop for many coastal birds, including Brown Pelicans, Least Terns, Wilson’s Plovers, Sanderlings, and other vulnerable species. BP oil reached the coastal habitats—on which these birds rely during shorebird migration—at the height of nesting season for breeding waterbirds. While the federal government’s Natural Resources Damage Assessment remained incomplete at the time of settlement and estimated a loss of 100,000 birds, other peer-reviewed studies made the case for the death of close to one million birds. Restoration efforts that address the higher range are needed to do justice to our Gulf birds.
Under the terms of the settlement, the monies will be paid out over 15 years, starting in the spring of 2017. Under the Natural Resource Damage claim alone, $400 million of its more than $7 billion are earmarked for bird recovery. Audubon has already identified needs for birds over a ten year period that exceed $1 billion. An additional $4.4 billion will flow through the RESTORE Act provisions to fund state and federal projects. The process for selecting and implementing projects is a unique opportunity for state and federal agencies to work together toward a more resilient Gulf of Mexico. If done right, investment in the Gulf should have lasting benefits for the region and the nation.