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Disaster Offers Opportunity

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June 6, 2010 – Looking at the view of the Gulf and the mouth of Destin Harbor from the terrace of our condo rental, nursing a steaming cup of java, I watched the break of dawn as it slowly unfurled its way across the sky into a spectacular early morning. The turquoise ribbon of water 300 yards ahead, sparkled in the sun, and was filled with a flotilla of white fishing boats making their way out to sea from the harbor of the Florida Panhandle’s “luckiest fishing village”, presumably filled with sport fisherman and locals, both going out to catch the “big one”.

That was my first glimpse of the Emerald Coast of Florida and the beaches of Destin, in the late summer of 1999. A little while later my husband returned from an early morning walk on the wide, dune covered, white sand beach and declared how beautiful it all was. Of course he was right, as were millions of visitors, year after year, who had made the trip from every point in the southern U.S. and beyond.

And along with all those millions I am devastated, angry and full of sorrow that the area so many of us referred to with a laugh as The Redneck Riviera will be spoiled for years to come by the largest man-made catastrophe in history.

The beautiful beaches where we spent our family vacations while we watched our daughter learn to boogey board and snorkel, will lose their whiteness and turn into a muddy, oily swamp. Possibly thousands of birds, including the magnificent egrets, herons and brown pelicans, will die, not to mention countless wildlife under the surface like the playful schools of dolphins beachgoers enjoy spotting every morning and afternoon. The place where I spent my 40th birthday weekend will be engulfed by the horrific smell that will linger as long as the oil does.

And thousands upon thousands of hardworking Americans will lose their livelihoods, businesses, homes and way of life, possibly forever.

The immutable effect of the oil spill means that there is no going back – ever. Marshes and oyster beds are at the highest risk and may never recover. Even if the beaches manage to regain their whiteness (years from now) and the water returns to its emerald hue, the wildlife of the Gulf Coast may take generations to bounce back. And there’s no telling how many species will be lost forever. Twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez spill, there still remains an oily residue all over the beaches of Prince William Sound, if you dig down just a few inches.

One aspect of the oil spill that has yet to be determined is whether or not we will let this happen again. BP is promising that they will accept responsibility and pay for the cleanup, but legally they are liable for only $75 million. And the government has only billed them so far for $69 million. State officials and beach managers have said that BP has been slow to respond, or has not responded at all, to requests for materials, supplies and personnel to protect and clean up the affected areas.

The fact of the matter is that any claim made to BP can be deemed illegitimate at their discretion and therefore denied. Will this happen on a wide scale? We won’t know until it happens.

What we can do as outraged citizens who care about our nation’s natural assets is call our state representatives and senators in Congress and demand that BP be made liable for the full cost of cleanup, plus loss of income and that no other energy company – be it big oil or big coal – be allowed to operate in the U.S. without comprehensive safety regulations for workers, as well as regulations to protect our environment. No matter what the cost to the companies.

Proper funding for oversight as well as money to attract the best and the brightest in environmental protection will be needed as well.

The oil spill, the West Virginia coalmine explosion, the Toyota recall, the financial crisis of last year and the ongoing mortgage crisis are all evidence that industry cannot police itself. And anyone who thinks otherwise is in massive denial or simply doesn’t possess the mental capacity to put two and two together.

We must use this opportunity as citizens with a deep devotion to our country, its natural beauty and its hardworking people to demand that safety and protection must be figured into the cost of doing business. It’s that simple because the saddest part of all this is that there will be generations behind us who may never enjoy the splendid beauty of a Gulf Coast beach.

Stacey Dougherty is the owner and editor of Where2NowMag.com.

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