A view of the oil spill from Dauphin Island

June 17, 2010

As I sit here writing this piece from my home on Dauphin Island, a barrier island off the coast Mobile, Alabama, in the Gulf of Mexico, I can look across the salt marsh to the entrance to Bayou Heron, where an oil containment boom stretches across the entrance.

This boom is an effort to keep the Deep Horizon oil spill from entering the bayou and killing the grasses. Maybe a pelican will fly by diving for fish, followed by one or more laughing gulls, attempting to steal his catch. Or maybe a black skimmer will glide silently across the surface of the water, skimming small fish to take back to the young in the nest. As I watch this, I am inclined to reflect on the thoughts Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently expressed: "We are all connected, and there is no escape; our common future depends on how we care for the rest of the natural world."

This is so true, and it is so evident here on Dauphin Island.

Thirteen miles long before Hurricane Katrina hit, the barrier island now has a mile-wide break about two thirds of the way toward the west end; the westernmost third is basically a sand spit some five to eight feet above sea level. The easternmost third consists of maritime forest and beach and dune. The island is about a mile wide at its widest point. It is home to about 1,300 residents year ’round, with many more tourists in the summertime.

Originally a remote fishing village connected to the mainland only by the mail boat, the island is now a thriving tourist destination. It was developed in the mid-1950s, when more than 2,000 lots were sold on the promise of a bridge to the island. Recreational and commercial fishing long have been the mainstay of the island's economy.

The view seaward from the island reveals a host of natural-gas rigs out in the gulf, mostly owned by Exxon and Shell, all for the purpose of extracting natural gas from the formations below the seabed, much as the Deepwater Horizon well was placed to extract crude oil. A mutual understanding exists between the islanders and the energy companies. As residents, we understand that there is a risk of a poisonous hydrogen sulfide leak from one of these platforms; it has happened before. On the other hand, Exxon and Shell have taken very careful and prudent steps to avoid any repeat of such an incident and installed a warning system should it happen again. So far it has worked out well.

The first gas rigs were drilled in the early to mid-1980s. Once a zero discharge policy was put in place, the arrangement worked out well, and the gas rigs now provide some of the best fishing locations in the gulf.

In the aftermath of the Deep Horizon spill, Dauphin Island has been become a major staging area for the U.S. Coast Guard, BP and a host of supporting contractors. Most of the working waterfront has been commandeered by BP and the Coast Guard as a command center. Several acres of the school's playing fields have been converted to a contractor-support area. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of contract workers on the island, working around the clock to contain the oil coming in, clean up tar balls on the beaches or skim oil from the water's surface.

On a recent morning, I watched as the shrimp boat from our local seafood shop made its way out of the harbor into the Mississippi Sound. I thought it an odd time for it to be going out. Later, I stopped by the shop hoping for some fresh tuna and conversation about what was going on in their world. I quickly learned that the boat was not going out for shrimp but was working for BP as a "vessel of opportunity," under contract to go out and explore for crude oil patches on the surface. There are thousands of boats, commercial and recreational across the Gulf Coast so employed, replacing their lost catches/wages by working temporarily for BP.

As this disaster continues to unfold, another gas rig is being drilled just off the shoreline of Dauphin Island – all this to extract energy from the earth, to power our overconsumption and to generate profits for the corporations and their stockholders. In the case of Deepwater Horizon and BP, it is becoming increasingly clear that this was done without adequate consideration for the risk and potential harm to the world where we all must live. We are waiting and hoping to see the final outcome: ideally the complete repair of all the damage done, but this is unlikely in the near future.

The marshes that surround us, and those all along the Gulf Coast, are not just home for the myriad of wildlife species – clapper rails, sora, majestic great blue herons, regal great egrets, multitudes of red-winged blackbirds. They also are the breeding grounds and source of most of the fish and invertebrates that are a part of our economy and way of life.

The questions remain: Will our marshes be lost for years, if not for decades? How long will it take to recover, and at what cost? More importantly, are the necessary steps being taken to assure that such a tragedy never happens again?

The presiding bishop said it so well: "We are all connected, we will all suffer the consequences of this tragic disaster in the gulf, and we must wake up and put a stop to the kind of robber baron behavior we supposedly regulated out of existence a hundred years ago. Our lives, and the liveliness of the entire planet, depend on it."