BP, Katrina Leave Their Marks on Ship Island

One of many tarballs.Last I took a trip out to Ship Island off the Mississippi coast. On first glance, the Island seemed to have returned to normal: tourist relaxed on the beach, Fort Massachusetts was open for visitors, and fields of sea oats stood tall in the summer sun. I couldn’t resist jumping in for a quick dip myself. However, as I began to walk the beaches I started to notice how recent disasters have taken a toll on this place. This was my first time visiting the Island since Hurricane Katrina and I was shocked to see how much land had been lost since my last visit. There used to be a long, white-sand beach that extended for several hundred yards behind the North Side of Fort Massachusetts. This beach had protected the fort and held it on dry land since its construction in the 1860’s. Now the Gulf waters lick directly against the fort’s bricks, which hung precariously off the shore. Walking down the beach on the South Side of the Island, I saw evidence of more recent events. I only had to walk about a third of a mile West of the main tourist area when I began to see tarballs – I had never seen tarballs before. Their sand-dotted exteriors broke away easily exposing the soft, semisolid interior that emitted a distinctive asphalt-like smell. These tarballs were not large, but I did find several different clumps, which indicates that they weren’t just there incidentally. The BP drilling disaster, which spewed hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, is a likely culprit. Other than the tarballs, there weren’t any obvious visible impacts to the beach; however, I did see an abnormally abundant array of dead seabirds. As a result, I wondered what the non-visible impacts of the spill were and to what degree they affect our coastal waters and wildlife. We will probably never be able to calculate the extent to which the coast was damaged. We will never know exactly how many casualties were suffered between our local marine fish, mammals, and avian friends. It is, therefore, essential that we make every possible effort to protect and restore the coastal habitats that local animals and ourselves depend on.Deceased pelican along the beach.With solid restoration plans like the Mississippi Coastal Improvement Project already on the books but underfunded, it is important that MS and the rest of the Gulf coast get their fair share of the BP Clean Water Act fines. Such funding would allow restoration of precious estuaries that feed populations of marine life directly affected by the spill and could also help us rebuild the barrier Islands that protect them. Thankfully, nine of the ten Gulf Coast Senators recently came out in support of the RESTORE act, a bill that would send 80% of BP’s CWA fines back to the Gulf. Now, we need to make sure this or similar legislation actually becomes law. If you live in the Gulf coast, please click here to make a call thanking your senators and urging your representative to support the RESTORE act. If you live outside the Gulf coast, click here to call your senators and representatives and urge them to take action for a healthy Gulf.Gilbert Ramseur is GRN’s Mississippi Campaign Assistant

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