At the front of the room, Pete Conroy, director of JSU’s environmental policy and information center, started the symposium on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with an apology for Friday morning’s sparse attendance.
After all, he noted, it was early in the morning on a college campus.
Nonetheless, students filtered in and out of the hall with the class schedule. Those who stayed for the first half of the meeting learned the reflections of four people integral to Alabama’s response to and recovery from the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The symposium was held as part of the 88th annual meeting of the Alabama Academy of Science.
Nearly a year after the explosion, it appears Alabama suffered more psychological and economic damage than environmental damage.
“It is a socioeconomic disaster of biblical proportions,” said George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. He joined the discussion via video.
The state had to decide which areas of the shoreline to protect with its finite resources, said Bruce Freeman, head of emergency response with the department of environmental management. Floating barriers kept drifting oil out of estuaries and marshes, leaving it to run up on beaches. There, it was easier and less environmentally damaging to run a modified snowplow across the muck than to figure out how to pick tar balls out of salt marshes, Freeman explained.
But the sight of tar balls rolling onto the beach and getting cleaned up by people sporting white jumpsuits, life jackets and hardhats seems to have had a profound impact on the public’s perception of the spill. At least one suicide has been linked to the spill, Crozier noted.
Psychological fallout and public perception are two of the biggest battles remaining with the continuing cleanup. Rampant skepticism remains. A few shrimpers refuse to believe Gulf shrimp are safe simply because the government says they are, Crozier said.
Skepticism was fueled in part by the amount of incomplete information reported over the summer, Crozier said.
Perhaps the primary reason information was hard to come be was that only the national incident commander, Admiral Thad Allen, was authorized to speak to the press, Freeman said.
Getting all the necessary information out each day was an impossible task for one man, said Freeman, who mentioned that he ate crab he caught in the Gulf all summer.
But the public wasn’t the only one suffering from a lack of communication.
“To say it was chaos there the first few days was an understatement,” said Brad Wilson, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby’s man on the ground in Mobile. “There was absolutely no organizational structure.”
How not to bungle the organizational response to a massive crisis remains a question the federal government is working to answer, Wilson said.
The difficulty of coordinating an organization that grew from zero people to 42,000 in 60 days was noted by Stan Meiberg, the EPA regional director.
A number of Congressional committees are working on establishing a proper chain of command for disaster responses, but Wilson is concerned the commissions are losing steam, given the budget, health care reform and the way the Gulf spill cleanup is not high on the public’s list of concerns.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Wilson said of the committees. “The budget is number one on everybody’s (list).”
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546