One year later: Michael Blum on the state of the Gulf coast

Almost a year since the Gulf oil spill, Michael Blum believes we’ve still got a long way to go until we recover from the damage wrought on the coast’s shoreline, ecology, and community. Blum, a Tulane University ecology and evolutionary biology professor, has become an expert on the oil spill’s clean up efforts and the long-term environmental and health implications. We checked in with him to hear his take on what’s transpired since he spoke about the oil spill at PopTech this past fall.

PopTech: In your PopTech talk you’d said, "We're left with the question: How do we go from where we are now to where we need to be going?" How far do you think we've come since the oil spill last year? Have your thoughts shifted on where we need to be going?
Michael Blum: My instinctual response is to say that we haven't come far enough over the past year. There are a number of key milestones that might have been reached, but weren't. These include critical aspects of recovery, such as removing all oil from affected shorelines; the enactment of a comprehensive research and monitoring program by BP; and issuance of a long term vision for restoring the Gulf coast, focusing on areas of the Mississippi River Delta that were among the most impacted by the spill. Granted, such things take time, so we need to continue making forward progress, day by day, until we reach these milestones. Doing anything less would jeopardize the long-term health and well-being of the Gulf coast. 

PT: What major problems do you see that still exist on the ground?
MB: I am troubled most by three problems. First: it remains incredibly difficult to secure verifiable, up-to-date information on the extent and distribution of oil in the environment. This is troubling because it either indicates that such information is not available, or if it is, that it hasn't been adequately processed for public review. This leads to my second concern: that time-sensitive opportunities to understand the ecological and societal impacts of the spill were lost (largely due to delays in funding), so consequently we will have more limited understanding of short-term and long-term effects of oiling. My final concern is that without this understanding, restoration of damaged resources will not succeed.   

PT: In your talk you’d also said, "When evaluating the event, we can talk about it not just in a technical detail of what went wrong or right, but we can talk about societal dimensions of what we can learn and how we can grow from what we understand." Almost a year later, what do you think we now understand better? What are the implications of the spill that you see now that might not have been apparent when it took place last year?
MB: One of the most compelling "lessons learned" is how the event triggered the nation to re-evaluate the importance of resources put at risk. Many of the resources affected by the oil spill (including some of the nation's most economically productive fisheries and storm protection services provided by coastal wetlands) are chronically threatened by deteriorating conditions related to climate change (e.g. sea level rise) and water pollution (e.g. the dead zone that forms off the coast every year). Like other recent disasters (e.g. Hurricane Katrina), the acute nature of the oil spill has highlighted the importance of at-risk resources provided by Gulf coast ecosystems that afford a livelihood and culture to the region's population. Although tragic, it is possible that the oil spill has provided the motivation to reverse decades of loss and secure the necessary societal support to sustain the Gulf coast for generations to come.

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