10 Years After the Oil Spill: Recovery – and Hope During a New Disaster

10 Years After the Oil Spill: Recovery – and Hope During a New Disaster

POSTED ON 4/20/20 

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon (DWH), an oil drilling rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded. The disaster killed 11 people and released an estimated 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. We asked Eliska Morgan, Government Relations Director for Thompson Engineering and former Executive Director for the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, to describe her thoughts on the 10-year anniversary amidst a new disaster, COVID-19.


Rewind a decade and think about the days immediately following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. Were those of us along the Gulf Coast watching intently? Should we have been more focused on the “what ifs”? Unfortunately, on that fateful day, April 20, 2010, when 11 innocent lives were tragically lost, there was no crystal ball to show us what the coming months and years would look like. I do remember some of those days were horribly dark and depressing, particularly in our coastal communities. Now, almost 10 years later, we are not just remembering the fear and angst of that tragic April day and the months that followed, but are reliving them in tandem with a new kind of disaster.


For me, it is impossible to think about the devastation of the spill and not compare it to our current situation with COVID-19. As we watched this epidemic explode in Wuhan, China, did anyone along the Gulf Coast have a real understanding of how serious and crippling this virus would be? How could we have known that it would have as bad an impact – if not worse – on our daily lives and our economy than the oil spill? Who would have thought 10 years after the spill we would be lamenting the fact we are unable to “celebrate” its anniversary because we are now dealing with the greatest challenge of our lives?


While these moments in our history are indeed bleak, we can find hope for the future as we look back on all we’ve accomplished following the oil spill. Coastal Alabama is extremely resilient. We’ve proven it time after time, in our most recent history with Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina and the oil spill. We endured those devastating events that wreaked havoc on our way of life and our economy, and we rebounded every time – bigger, better and stronger! There is no doubt in my mind we will do it again; to not do so would run totally against our grain.


Let us take a moment to reflect on the 10-year anniversary of the DWH oil spill, because there is some good that came out of that bad.


You may remember, as part of the DWH civil and criminal lawsuits, Alabama received more than $1.25 billion to address environmental and economic damages incurred by the spill. The civil and criminal fines levied against the responsible parties were dedicated in large part to coastal restoration and economic projects along the Gulf Coast. While long in coming, these funds have provided a tremendous opportunity to both restore coastal Alabama and implement projects intended to provide a more resilient future for its communities.


There were several funding programs created as a result of the DWH oil spill. One such source is the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). This is a process initiated anytime there is an oil spill or hazardous chemicals release, with funds used to remedy harm for losses to our natural resources (an “eye for an eye” program, if you will). For example, if an oil spill kills 200 brown pelicans the responsible party must “replace” those 200 pelicans. In the final settlement announced in July 2015, Alabama received $296 million through NRDA for projects intended to remedy harm to our natural resources. Additionally – and importantly – these funds also are meant to remedy harm for the loss of use of our recreational assets. As you remember, the people of Alabama and visitors were unable to enjoy our beaches during the summer of 2010. Because of that, a large amount of NRDA funding was dedicated to remedy harm for the loss of human use of our beaches.


The criminal case settled in 2012 resulted in the creation of the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF) administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), an environmental organization chartered by Congress in 1984. This funding source dedicated $356 million over a five-year period for projects in coastal Alabama to restore or conserve those habitats injured as a result of the DWH oil spill.  The state of Alabama has to date committed roughly $230 million from this fund to projects in Mobile and Baldwin Counties.


With the passage of the Resources and Ecosystem Services, Tourism Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act of 2012 (RESTORE Act), close to $600 million was dedicated to the state of Alabama over a 15-year period for environmental and economic projects. The RESTORE Act created a 10-member Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC) tasked with selecting projects for funding across Mobile and Baldwin Counties. In March 2018, the AGCRC dedicated more than $315 million to fund over 40 worthy projects across Alabama’s coast. The RESTORE Act also created a fund dedicated to Gulf-wide ecosystem restoration projects selected on a competitive basis by members of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.


Thompson Engineering has been on the ready since day one of the DWH crisis. Known for its marine capabilities, Thompson was a natural choice to assist the State of Alabama as oil from DWH moved across Gulf waters toward our coast. With fears of oil entering Mississippi Sound and Portersville Bay, the State determined a 1.5-mile-wide breach created on Dauphin Island during Hurricane Katrina should be closed to protect our oyster beds and estuaries. Utilizing emergency funding provided by BP, Thompson was selected to engineer and design a structure to close the gap known as Katrina Cut. The project involved the placement of approximately 150,000 tons of Grade “A” stone, 95,000 cubic yards of hydraulically excavated and placed sand and 110,000 tons of armor stone. The berm’s bottom width varies according to water depth and is 84-feet at its widest. The structure continues to serve as a significant protective barrier for Dauphin Island and the Mississippi Sound.


Destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Alabama’s Gulf State Park became one of the first projects selected for funding through the NRDA Early Restoration Plan to address the recreational use loss incurred as a result of the oil spill. Thompson Engineering served as the Civil Engineer of Record for the $85 million project, which includes a lodge, interpretive center, education center, trails, and pedestrian bridges. In the fall of 2018, Gulf State Park celebrated its grand re-opening and secured its place as an international benchmark of environmental and economic sustainability and a successful demonstration of best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations.


As the GEBF funds rolled out in 2014, Thompson is proud to have been selected to implement one of the first restoration projects along the western shore of Mobile Bay. The tip of Mon Louis Island, located at the mouth of Fowl River, had, as a result of severe erosion, been identified as a priority restoration project. Had breaching occurred in this area, the integrity of Fowl River and the important estuaries it serves would certainly have been compromised. The $3.25 million project created four acres of marsh and a stable shoreline, successfully protecting the mouth of Fowl River.


Other projects of note funded by NRDA and implemented by Thompson Engineering were the restorations of Marsh Island in the Mississippi Sound off the coast of Alabama, and North Breton Island in the Breton Sound, 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The Marsh Island project restored approximately 50 acres of salt marsh on the north side of the island, while the Breton Island project restored and/or created 450 acres of beach, dune, and marsh habitats using nearly 5.5 million cubic yards of dredge material. Both islands are thriving today, providing important ecosystem services to our bird populations and estuaries.


Thompson Engineering is also involved with several ongoing NFWF projects including the Deer River Shoreline Stabilization, Fowl River Watershed Restoration: Coastal Spits and Wetlands Project, Fly Creek Watershed Management Plan, and the D’Olive Watershed Management Plan. In addition, the Thompson team is excited to be working on several RESTORE projects including the Alabama State Port Authority Roll On-Roll Off Automotive Terminal, the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability in Gulf Shores, the Mobile County Blueway Trail, the Bayou La Batre City Docks Redevelopment, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management Coastal and Mobile Field Office.


Just as in the days after the DWH oil spill, Thompson Engineering is being called on now as COVID-19 grips the country to help prepare for what lies ahead. We are deemed an essential business because we provide professional services to critical infrastructure industries such as state Departments of Transportation, Navy ship builders, municipalities, and more. And we know that as we adapt to life with COVID-19, the work we do in the future will be shaped by it. Why? By design, engineers and architects approach projects that affect and influence public safety and function. And like the work we’ve done following the oil spill, the work that follows COVID-19 will make us smarter, better, stronger. I have no doubt that when we look back 10 years from now, we will remember the despair we currently feel, but will celebrate the strength, perspective, and recovery we’ve made after this disaster.