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6/30: Spill in the Gulf — On the Ground

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6/30: Spill in the Gulf — On the Ground

How well are President Obama and the federal government responding to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?  Tom Bancroft is the Chief Scientist for the National Audubon Society which is extremely concerned about restoring the ecosystems damaged by the oil.  While on the Gulf Coast to assess the damage and to train volunteers in efforts to preserve the wildlife, he spoke with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks.  Listen to the interview or read the transcript below.

Tom Bancroft

Tom Bancroft

Listen to Part 1:

John Sparks
The Marist Poll asked the American public whether they approved or disapproved how the President is handling the BP oil spill. I’m just curious, what does the Audubon Society or Tom Bancroft feel about how it’s being handled?
Tom Bancroft
Well, I think in a lot of ways it’s being handled very well. The Fish and Wildlife Service has really responded in a major way to the oil spill, and they’ve put … I was talking to a person in Washington D.C. several weeks ago, and he said they’ve moved almost 400 staff to work full-time on the oil spill trying to respond to what it’s doing for wildlife.  So, I think that’s really putting a lot of effort into it and really trying to get their resources focused on wildlife and the oil spill, and that’s just one section of what the federal government is doing around it. Of course that’s what we’re worried a lot about — what it’s doing to the ecosystem — and the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA have major responsibilities around that.  So, we’re very supportive of what they’re doing and think they’re doing a lot of really good stuff, so we don’t — I don’t have a lot complaints about what they’re doing.  I’m sure they could use a lot more resources, and we’re trying to help make sure that in the supplemental appropriations in Congress is giving support to the federal government so that they can respond to this in the proper way.

John Sparks
Clearly we have to do more than play the “ain’t it awful” game.  What can our government do in the way of policy to clean up this mess?  You mentioned, of course, funding initiatives. Any other thoughts?

Tom Bancroft
Well, there’s both the short-term effects, and then there’s the long-term effects of this oil spill.  So, we were very pleased to hear the president announce that he’s asking his agencies to really look into long-term restoration of the ecosystem down here, and that’s a lot of what we’re focused on is: what can we do to prevent additional damage from happening?  And, then when damage does happen, what do you need to do to restore those ecosystems and make them healthy again and help the ecosystems is critical for people, too, as well as wildlife, and I think one of the messages I’m trying to present when I’m talking about this is: We’ve got to get back to a healthy ecosystem because that’s what’s critical for people as well as for wildlife, and I think investing in that kind of long-term restoration and thinking about how do we sustainably live within the environment is really critical. So, I think a second real piece of that is really to increase the education around how important the environment is to people and wildlife and our way of life here in the United States and that we really need to invest in protecting that and we can’t just take it for granted.

Listen to Part 2:

John Sparks
What are some suggestions that you might have that I, as an individual, can do?

Tom Bancroft
We’ve got a website, an Audubon website, it’s a place where you can sign up to volunteer there.  We now have 27,000 volunteers that signed up, and then that has a lot of things that people can do to help out.  If you can’t come down here, and there’s not a lot for people to do down here along the Coast where I am today, but we do have volunteers helping survey for birds trying to figure out what are the bird populations down here, so that’s one of the things that’s going on.  But, you can also do that in your local neighborhood.  I think there’s a lot of things that you can do to protect the ecosystem, and investing in the ecosystem anywhere in the country is important to think about how that’s maintaining the environment that is important to all of us, so I think doing that, contacting your Congressional representatives and letting them know how important you think dealing with this issue is and invested in repairing and the ecological damage, but also in passing better environmental safeguards so this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the future. I think one of the things that’s come out clear in this is that there weren’t enough environmental safeguards in place, so they didn’t have the backup systems that they needed to have. They didn’t have the well-tested system down there at the bottom of the ocean so they could shut this thing off in case something went wrong, and it did get wrong — go wrong and they couldn’t shut it off, so I think really getting much better environmental safeguards is really critical.

Listen to Part 3:

John Sparks
Now you’re at the site, can you tell me geographically perhaps where you are and what your day was like today?  What things were you involved in?

Tom Bancroft
I’m in Fair Point, Alabama, right now, which is on the east side of Mobile Bay, and we did a workshop for volunteers today.  We had about 35 people come to the workshop, and we trained them on how to go out and do surveys along a mile stretch of beach, and we’re setting up seven areas along beaches in Alabama here, and we’ve put together teams of volunteers and go to — ask them to go out and survey for birds along those beaches about once a month to once every other week for the next year to try to record the movement of birds in and out of this part of Alabama. We’re trying to do that in all the states from Texas around to Florida so that we get a good handle on the use of these areas by birds, if the areas have been damaged by oil, what does that do to bird populations. That information on birds will help us in pressuring the governments to invest in cleanup and pressure BP into investing cleanup in the right places so that we get maximum return for the money.  So, I spent most of the day doing that. And then late this afternoon, we went down to Weeks Bay, which is on the southern part of Mobile Bay, and went to see where they’re putting some of the booms out to protect the shoreline in case the oil gets here, and so I went and saw several of those places where they’ve got some preliminary booms up in case oil comes ashore, and we just kind of went around and saw some of that area and what was going on there.

Listen to Part 4:

John Sparks
It’s interesting, you mentioned about birds. I’m in Dallas, Texas, believe it or not, and I’m a little bit more than 400 miles inland from the Texas Gulf Coast.

Tom Bancroft
Right.

John Sparks
Now I was sitting in my backyard the other day, I saw what I swore was a white seagull flying north, and I saw what appeared to me to be a pelican flying north.  Will we see things like this do you suppose as birds that populate the seashore areas, if they can’t get food, will they come north or other places looking for food?

Tom Bancroft
The Gulf Coast is an important breeding area for lots of birds.  So, we’ve got a lot of pelicans breeding here now, and this could really affect them.  And in early July, we start to get migrant shore birds that are breeding up in the Arctic now starting to come back and move through this area, so it’s good — it’s likely to affect birds from all over the country as they move south in their migration and then next spring move back north.  A lot of ducks and geese that are breeding farther north in the United States and Canada come down and spend the winter all the way Texas Coast all the way around here.  So, the oil spill could have a really major ramification for bird populations that occur all over the country.  Now there are some gulls that move inland, so you may well have been seeing one that that was a natural place for it to be.  I would think that is kind of unusual to see a pelican that far inland. That does occasionally happen.  And, that’s what may happen here as food supply starts to go down, birds are likely to follow the food, and so it moves to other places. The person I had dinner with tonight was talking about some of the things that he’s heard in more of rumors, rumors about how offshore they’re starting to get some affects on populations of fish, which are causing the fish to move, and there may be things responding to that movement like sharks following them into areas where normally there aren’t sharks, because some of the fish populations are being moved around because of the oil underneath the surface that’s out there, and that’s one of the things we just don’t know a lot of what’s going on. They used a lot of dispersants to try to cause the oil to break up and get much more diluted into the water column, which seems like that that would be a good thing, but we really don’t know what the effects of that are, and there’s all this oil that is now floating around in the water column out there, which is where there’s lots of plankton and larva for a lot of fish and larva for a lot of the crustaceans and shrimp that are important, and so what’s this going to do to the whole environment and the food chain?  We just don’t know at this point.

Listen to Part 5:

John Sparks
This brings up the whole issue about offshore drilling and can we really afford to stop drilling.  Is there some middle ground that we can all co-exist do you think, or do you think that we just can’t afford to take any more hits like this, that this is a long overdue wakeup call?

Tom Bancroft
Well, I think it’s definitely a wakeup call, and what we hope is this will help us, as a nation, think about our long-term energy needs and really invest in how are we going to get to a more sustainable energy use here in the country, invest a lot more in renewable energies, start to figure out how we need to use less fossil fuels for our energy use.  It’s clear we need fossil fuels, and it’s going to continue that way, and so drilling needs to go forward, we just need to do it in an environmentally sensitive way, and, maybe, we don’t have the right things in the place for doing deep well — deep water drilling at this point, and we need to get better environmental safeguards put in place so that we have less of a chance of this happening in the future.

John Sparks
Is there anything else about this spill and its effects that’s you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed?

Tom Bancroft
Well you mentioned what it’s done to a lot of jobs. It’s affected the fishing industry. It’s affected the workers on offshore oil wells. It’s affecting a lot of the people that are dependent upon the coastal system for their livelihood, and I think the message here, the kind of long-term message is just how important a healthy environment is to maintain our economy, to maintain our lifestyle in that I hope that one of the lessons learned from this is just we need to pay attention to the environment a lot more than maybe we have in this country and consider that as — at a critically important thing for our well-being and our quality of life.

Listen to Part 6:

John Sparks
You mentioned your work with the Society and working with the volunteers, is there anything else that the Audubon Society’s involved with that you would want to share with our listeners so that they might be pro-active and become involved?

Tom Bancroft
Sure.  Well, we’re very…  we’ve been along the Gulf Coast for a hundred years now.  We’ve help manage colonies over in Texas and Florida and all along the Coast, and one of our big efforts along the Coast is restoration of the marsh system in the southern part of the Mississippi, all along the Louisiana Coast and over into Mississippi here, and really investing in that restoration is a really critical piece to do.  Part of what you can also get involved through Audubon with is we have an online activist system in which you can sign up on audubon.org, and that will get you information on what’s happening on a national level around conservation issues, around passing energy legislation or land protection legislation or bird legislation through Congress, and it also will connect you into a lot of work that’s going on in individual states across the country.  So people can learn a lot more about what Audubon’s doing on our website at audubon.org,  and they can sign up to engage in activities at the national level. We also have a whole network of education centers all across the country.  Those are often places that families can come and participate in activities and get to learn more about the outside, and I think that’s an important role that we play.  We also have 450 chapters spread across the country so every state in the United States has chapters in it.  Some states only have a few, some have a lot, but you can find out about those chapters, and those also places that people can get involved in conservation, get involved in education and the outdoors, but maybe most important, get a chance to get out and see the out of doors with other people.

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