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My name is Scott Eustis. I'm the Coastal Wetlands specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, Louisiana. I was born and raised in New Orleans.
What does Gulf Restoration Network do? What is a “dead zone”?
We're environmental advocates that seek clean water, healthy wetlands and sustainable fisheries in the Gulf region. We were founded to work on the dead zone to hold the government accountable to their promises to clean the Mississippi River of nitrate. It's called the dead zone, because if you are a fisherman, you run a net through it and your net comes up empty. So that the dead zone that forms off the Louisiana shelf each year is reduced in size, over time. The EPA has not kept up with their promise to our fishermen in the Gulf. Our Gulf fishermen, especially in Louisiana, travel farther to catch the same seafood that we and the United States enjoys and eats.
So you have any doubt that many, or most, of these environmental problems are the result of gas infrastructure and development? Do they acknowledge that?
There are many wells and canals; maybe two wells that are producing. So, the damages that have been done don't line up with the economic benefit that we received from the industry. These are old damages and that's no excuse, because the companies are still around. And in many cases, they've documented what they've done and quite clearly. That's not some kind of natural formulation. From the Chapel Hill to the Mississippi border, just the canal footprint through the Delta marshes is 11 percent of the total damages.
A lot of these oil wells that produce water merely placed it beside them. And that “produced water” is filled with various pollutants like naturally occurring radioactive materials. But also salt water, brine, I'm talking about a very concentrated salt water that killed the plants and destroyed the land. There's also some documentation that if a company went in and extracted oil very quickly from an oil field, it caused subsidence. That is, taking fluid out from a very slippery, muddy landscape causing slumping along fault lines. So there are many ways that the oil industry has impacted the Louisiana landscape and the Mississippi River Delta. The oil industry contests all of them.
Tell us what happened with the BP oil spill; why it happened, why it was so bad, and what it was like as someone from here to go through that disaster?
Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, Texas, have always been the heart of the oil industry in the United States. The Gulf of Mexico, offshore, has become increasingly important to domestic production. A lot of the easy-to-get oil in the Gulf has been gotten already and so companies like the supermajors, have the pressures of profit push them to go further offshore and drill in more extreme situations. That is the stage that was set for BP's drilling disaster in 2010. Just the push to go further, deeper and faster. They cut a lot of corners and acted in a criminally haphazard way, but there are many companies that are drilling in deep water today, using very risky techniques. So, it's just a matter of time before something like this happens. And unfortunately our government has not kept pace with keeping tabs on these companies and making sure that they have response plans in place when the foreseeable happens.
Those were our cousins and brothers that died, and they were incinerated when that thing went up.That was gut-turning enough, that was a particularly bad rig explosion. And then it was leaking. And at first you are like, "Well, of course, there is some oil and they are not going to clean it up and document it. Well, OK, it is a standard slipshod environmental enforcement that we have in the Gulf." But then as the days went on, it was more and more apparent that this thing was completely out of control.
The Coast Guard was standing up in front of the national media and saying "Oh no, we have every boat out there. We are mobilizing every resource we have for this problem." It was disturbing to hear the official voice not speaking the truth. And so right away we knew there was a desperate need for watchdogs, a need to elevate the voices of people on the ground. To elevate their experiences of what was happening because it seemed like there would be an attempt to minimize and push this away at every opportunity.
There was an enormous silence around the health effects and what it would do to our coastal populations and we are still figuring that out. And it is an amazingly contentious and fraught issue that, five years later, we are still dealing with. I did go to Grand Isle and I stayed inside. I volunteered making necropsy kits for the dead dolphins that began washing ashore and are still washing ashore five years later.
In various ways there was a need for citizens to come together and inform themselves about what was going on. There was a tremendous need for a group like Public Lab that was empowering citizens to go out and document the impacts on their own. In this way, people could collect their own data and information, and disseminate that information without all these filters that were happening in the halls of power.
Why do you think that it was so important?
I think BP learned a lot from the Exxon Valdez, that these images of oiled wildlife and impacts are tremendously damaging to their brand and to the potential for criminal penalties. They had a lot of restrictions on taking pictures of the impacts, taking pictures of wildlife or marsh impacts especially. There was a lot of, "No, you can't go here. You can't walk down this beach. You can't take pictures of that.” Usually the reason cited is safety, and you citizens can't come over here because you're somehow violating some safety practice. You have to stay one hundred feet away from whatever is being cleaned up
Scott Eustis and Jeff Warren launch a balloon to capture aerial images.
So, the balloon obviously allows you to skirt that. There were flight restrictions where you couldn't fly a plane below a certain altitude unless you wanted to do aerial photography of the marshes that we're being oiled, for example. You wouldn't be able to get the plane low enough to get good information. The balloon photography, low altitude aerial photography, really helped put the damages to the marsh in a broader perspective because you get that view from above of what's happening. In some places, those were the only pictures that were available. We live in a world that's dominated by images and if you can't put it on camera, it doesn't exist
What were the impacts of the BP spill on the fishing industry and other industries that relied on the coast?
The fisheries that we depend on in New Orleans, that make up our culture in Louisiana as well as across the Gulf Coast, were tremendously impacted. They had fishing restrictions so many people took the buyout. There was the “Vessels Of Opportunity” program, for fishermen who were honestly out of work, because you can't sell contaminated animals. They were given the opportunity to work, clean up, instead of pushing nets to collect shrimp, you “push boom” to collect oil, which then can be skinned and contained or burned.
But there weren't enough positions. BP did not really hire that many people and that was contentious because some people got that work. Other people didn't. And sometimes lifelong friendships were broken over who got the work and who didn't. Debt is a tremendous problem and it remains in litigation to get money for damages. The years leading up to the BP disaster were not good ones for the industry because of Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. They were doing half as much business as they would have because of these hurricanes and their response.
What do you think the role is for citizens to participate in data collection?
In our situation in Louisiana where our government is either understaffed, overwhelmed or both, there's large incentives to look the other way from various industries. The people have to report these environmental damages. We are all we have, effectively. It's unfortunate to say. So things are not going to clean up unless people take their destiny to their own hands. We have a tremendous lack of environmental enforcement in all kinds of realms, whether it's injection wells, regulating the drilling sites, enforcement of water or wetland permits, at every level government.
The Public Lab photos were not used in the litigation and were not part of what's called the NRDA, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment. But they've helped scientists and citizens to communicate with one another about what is happening. I think they'll continue to provide a record of what has happened over time, especially to the marshes at Barataria Bay. It's hard to overstate the importance of enabling that communication between professional scientists and people on the water. There's no enforcement unless citizens bring pollutants to the attention of the government.
We live in the modern world. Certainly industry provides tremendous benefits to society. The laws are there so that those benefits are balanced with the cost of the environment. And too often the costs to the environment are ignored, government looks the other way, overwhelmed and cannot possibly do the job that it has been tasked with. But it's systematically out of balance, particularly in an oil extraction region like the Gulf Coast, citizens are going to have to take the law into their own hands.
What has been the role of aerial mapping in Public Lab? Who uses the photographs?
It's a wonderful communication tool. It's hard to tease out all of the different impacts that are erasing the marsh from Barataria Bay. Having high resolution photographs can help us distinguish the type of impact. Public Lab in 2011 documented the direct smothering of plants from oil. The oil came ashore onto the Barataria marshes in glops, in an irregular fashion. Those marshes survive the initial oiling but because they no longer have the protection of the marshes on either side, those peninsulas are just disappearing. That's something you can see in a repeated series of low altitude aerial photos. People can live their entire lives in the water and never get that aerial view that gives them the sense of the entire place.
As an advocate, I'm using the photographs to communicate these processes. They're being studied by scientists and I've sent the images to researchers. I think another benefit of this photography, as opposed to the regular government aerial imagery that's being collected is that it's high resolution enough that it's very emotionally evocative. You don't see the marshes as this green smear. You see every single plant as you would see from the boat. The combination of that larger perspective puts us humans in our place in our environment, puts humans in our place in our home, combined with the rich detail of the normal experiences we have in the marsh.
Why is it important to you to protect the environment?
My grandfather was a forester before he went into oil. He taught me how to care for the land and care for the forest. He also saw the potential of the benefits of extracting oil. But I think, now, this generation we have seen that the cost of that extraction far outweigh the benefits. When my grandfather was working, there were a lot of damages that were done. A lot of people who worked for the oil companies complained to their bosses that these damages are happening and we need to do more to fix them. But in 50 years those voices have still not been listened to. After BP, the romance seems to be over. This idea that we can continue to extract these fossil fuels the way we have been and continue to survive, that's a dead idea.