Co-Authored by Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA and Aaron Viles, deputy director of Gulf Restoration Network
The BP disaster turns two this week. Two years since the nation was reminded that offshore drilling is dirty, dangerous, and deadly. Two years since the slow-motion disaster began changing our region, our communities, our ecosystem.
As we look back and assess where we are today, a troubling picture is emerging from the Gulf.
Throughout the foodchain, warning signs are accumulating. Dolphins are sick and dying. Important forage fish are plagued with gill and developmental damage. Deepwater species like snapper have been stricken with lesions, and their reefs are losing biodiversity. Coastal communities are struggling with changes to the fisheries they rely upon. Hard-hit oyster reefs aren't coming back and sport fish like speckled trout have disappeared from some of their traditional haunts. BP's oily fingerprints continue to mar the landscape and destroy habitats.
With these impacts already here, some scientists are alarmed by what they're finding. Unfortunately their concerns are largely drowned out by BP and the "powers that be" shouting through very large megaphones that "all is fine, BP is making it right, come and spend your money." But the truth is far different. The Gulf of Mexico, our nation's energy sacrifice zone, continues to suffer.
Of course, the Gulf wasn't a pristine ecosystem on April 19, 2010. The coastal wetlands of the Mississippi River delta were in a crisis state, losing a football field-worth of wetlands every hour due to our mismanagement of the river for flood control and dependable shipping lanes. This crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the oil industry being allowed to dredge 10,000 miles of canals through our coastal zone, removing marsh and increasing subsidence.
Louisiana's coastal wetlands system is among the fastest disappearing landmasses on earth, diminishing at the rate of 18 square miles every year. The coastal zone is vast however, making up 30 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands but is experiencing 90 percent of the nation's wetlands loss, a total of more than 1,800 square miles since 1932.
These wetlands are absolutely critical to our nation. Supplying $3 trillion annually to the U.S. economy, the Mississippi River and the Gulf coast create an international gateway for products like coffee, grain, seafood, oil and gas. The Gulf coast has historically been the cradle of nearly one-third of the commercial fish and shellfish harvest of the lower 48 states. Critical for migratory birds, the coast is used by up to 40 percent of North America's duck, geese, and eagle populations. Jazz, Funk, Zydeco, and Fats Domino were all born in southern Louisiana.
More importantly, Louisiana's natural storm defenses—such as barrier islands, marshes, and cypress swamps—protect Louisiana's coastal communities. Louisiana's infamous levees need wetlands to survive hurricane-level storms. But in the face of rising sea levels and stronger storms fueled by climate change, rebuilding these wetlands is the only way to make South Louisiana, and all it entails, sustainable.
With an estimated $50 billion price tag to re-engineer the lower reaches of the Mississippi River to reintroduce sediment and freshwater into the marsh to rebuild wetlands, this crisis demands a national commitment. In the face of rising seas, subsiding marsh, and increasing energy costs, coastal scientists estimate we have less than 10 years as a nation to begin the restoration process.
Here's the irony. Despite the horrors the BP disaster has brought to the region, it also presents a unique opportunity to jump start this $50 billion restoration project. BP will be on the hook for an historic fine under the Clean Water Act, as much as $17.6 billion depending on how aggressively and effectively the U.S. Department of Justice pursues the super-polluter. The oil industry (well, one very large corporate representative) might finally be forced to fix what they broke in our ecosystem. Congress is considering a bill that would devote 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines would go to gulf restoration projects. Congress needs to pass this bill without holding it hostage to anti-environmental legislation.
Two years after the disaster, it's outrageous that this is where we sit. Two years after the Santa Barbara oil spill, Earth Day was born, and helped to launch the modern environmental movement. Two years after the Exxon Valdez spill, the Oil Pollution Act had been passed by Congress, raising the bar on how we deal with oil accidents. Yet two years after the BP disaster, we're faced with horrible political gamesmanship, a vulnerable and threatened ecosystem, and struggling communities.
It's well past time we hold BP accountable, demand better leadership from Washington, D.C., and take significant steps to restore the Gulf, and protect against all future drilling disasters. We hope you'll help. Two years later and misguided politicians are not doing what's needed to fix the Gulf nor are they changing the "energy as usual" policies that got us in trouble in the first place.
Greenpeace submitted nearly 50 Freedom of Information Act requests in the summer of 2010 during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster for photos and information. These photos have never been released by the government. They were taken as the oil was hitting the coastline and, in many cases, in areas where the Coast Guard and BP were forbidding independent journalists or citizens from doing our own documentation by boat or air.
Greenpeace is still analyzing more than 20,000 images from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Below is a map with a selection of 300 of never before seen images. Please comment and tag the photos where you can see oil, and birds or other signs of wildlife.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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