The BP oil spill, which began after the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010, was the most dramatic environmental disaster to hit the region since Hurricane Katrina. But the Gulf Coast has been abused for decades. And now, residents and activists alike worry that if extensive action isn't taken soon, the region could be headed for another disaster.
Erosion may be the most pressing challenge facing wetlands: The land itself is literally slipping into the sea. A river delta is built by natural floods, and so the land began to degrade as soon as the first levees went up on the banks of the Mississippi. Canals dug by oil companies pushed saltwater into the marshes, killing off native vegetation and leaving endless acres of skeletal, dead cypress trees. Louisiana loses about a football field of wetlands every 30 minutes.
But the oil spill may also hold the key toward reversing decades of wetland loss. And that begs the question: Could one of the worst catastrophes to ever hit the Gulf Coast also be its salvation?
Restoring the Gulf Coast could be a fantastically expensive project, requiring a complex system of controlled freshwater diversions and improved levees. Activists and lawmakers in the affected states hope that that money might soon be made available out of the penalties that BP will have to pay because of the Clean Water Act.
Last week, Louisiana's U.S. senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, introduced a bill to allocate 80 percent of BP's penalty money to coastal restoration. BP will be required to pay its fines to the federal government, but Landrieu and Vitter want to funnel that money back to the states that bore the brunt of the oil spill's economic impact.
"BP will have to pay a serious fine to the federal government," Landrieu said in a statement. "And that is best directed to help the environment which was injured and to get the taxpayers off the hook and put the polluters on the hook for picking up this tab. And to do so in a way that's fair to the Gulf Coast states."
For Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network, it makes immediate sense to dedicate the penalty money to the Gulf.
"This is kind of a no-brainer bill," he told AOL News. "You talk about it, and everyone goes, 'Well, of course.' "
But the current climate in Washington makes any spending project a difficult proposition.
"I look at this political landscape and see a lot of challenges. But I think that it is so just and so right that this region could get the resources that it has desperately needed for decades," Viles said. "This region has just been abused by the nation, and here's the chance for the country to just own up and put the region on a path to sustainability to defend, protect and restore what we have so relied on in the past."