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  1. Opinion

Column: Florida delegation must compel Interior nominee Bernhardt to uphold moratorium on oil rigs off our coast

In June 2010, crews worked to clean up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that washed ashore at Pensacola Beach, a reminder of the dangers of offshore drilling. [AP photo (2010) by Michael Spooneybarger]
Published Apr. 10

The Deepwater Horizon disaster, with its ninth anniversary approaching, proved that even a spill in the western Gulf of Mexico can have devastating impacts throughout the Gulf and even threaten the south Atlantic.

That's why it is critical that our Florida delegation does everything that they can to compel the nominee for the Department of Interior, David Bernhardt, to uphold the moratorium that keeps oil rigs off of Florida's coasts. During the confirmation process, Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio should demand assurances from Bernhardt that oil drilling is a dead issue in Florida.

When the offshore oiling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in the waters off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, it sparked one of the biggest environmental disasters in American history. Eleven workers died, and the aftermath of the explosion highlighted the human, economic and environmental risks of continued investment in fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure. Over the course of nearly three months, the spill released approximately 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill left a monumental impact on the ecology of the Gulf, rocked tourism industries and destroyed the livelihood of countless commercial and recreational fishers.

Before becoming a Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, one of us (Andy) was a direct responder to the BP oil spill. I saw firsthand the impacts that irresponsible offshore drilling had on our wildlife, environment, human health and economy spending three months at Incident Command posts in St. Petersburg and Miami. My colleagues and I watched, alongside the rest of America, and particularly those folks whose livelihoods relied on a healthy Gulf, as the surface oiling spread from the Macondo well site and threatened local beaches, fisheries, and businesses. We all remember the very real fear over the significant threat that the oil would find its way to the Gulf Stream, which would carry it around the coast of Florida and along the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. During the 87 days that oil flowed freely from the site of the spill, there was a feeling of helplessness as we realized the full extent of the impacts and risks.

We still don't know the full breadth of the spill's impact, which will be studied for decades, but scientists do know that it's caused fish with lesions and immune problems, deformed crustaceans, dolphin deaths from bacterial infections due to compromised immune systems, massive die-off of microscopic organisms called foraminifera and weathered particles of oil found buried in the sediment in the Gulf floor. Even though the spill happened just off the coast of Louisiana, Gulf currents and weather patterns pushed the oil across the Gulf. It settled on a shelf 80 miles from Tampa Bay, and evidence shows that it impacted fish in the area.

Since Deepwater Horizon, we've been holding the line on eastward expansion of oil drilling and exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, and this opposition has benefitted from bipartisan recognition that offshore drilling is not work the risks to our coastal economy, our environment, and our communities.

Florida's environment and economy depend on clean beaches, thriving and abundant wildlife, and above all, unspoiled water. In Florida, oil and water don't mix, and Bernhardt needs that message to be front and center.

J.P. Brooker is senior manager and policy counsel for Florida conservation for the Ocean Conservancy, and Andy Hayslip is Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, writing on behalf of Waterkeepers Florida.

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