IN goes to Task Force meeting

We sent our reporter Jeremy Morrison to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meeting. Here is his report:

EPA Chief, task force visit Pensacola
by J. Adam Morrison

Gulf Coast fisherman Donald Waters summed up local sentiment pretty well.

“In the Gulf of Mexico, in our fisheries, today we have more questions than we have answers,” Waters told the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. “We have many, many questions and very few answers.”

That was toward the end of the June 1 meeting at Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre. With the Presidentially-created task force running deep into overtime, many people — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Florida Gov. Rick Scott — had left the theatre by that point.

Earlier, however, upwards of 300 people had gathered for the meeting. After cramming into an upstairs room, the crowd was directed into the more spacious — and ornate — Saenger.

“Isn’t this adorable,” admired task force member Helen Young, Deputy Commissioner Coastal Resources, Texas General Land Office, as she entered the hall.

In town for the fourth meeting in a series of six, the task force hoped to further its mission of defining oil-spill related issues in the gulf region and determining how best the government might address such issues. This October, once the meetings have wrapped up, the group will make its recommendations to President Obama.

“This task force is about looking forward,” EPA head Jackson had opened up the meeting in the smaller room.

For more than two hours, the task force heard from speakers regarding environmental and economic issues pertaining to the Gulf of Mexico following last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Once the crowd was relocated to the main theatre, task force member Mimi Drew fired the meeting back up with a pep talk and slide presentation featuring sea shells and surfers.

“Here’s a shot of a Blue Angel jet, I’m sure many of you have seen them in action,” she said, also highlighting Florida’s space launches and alligator wrestling. “You can go to Disney World in Orlando and enjoy a parade every four hours …. do you want to get married on a barge? We can actually provide that.”

The board heard next from Dr. Steve Murawski, University of South Florida, on the importance of working with the scientific and academic communities toward restoration: “Really, they can be your best friend or your worst enemy.”
Local academic, Dr. Rick Harper of the University of West Florida, spoke on post-spill economics and contrasted the recent crowds over Memorial Day weekend with last year’s lean Fourth of July: “We say, ‘thank goodness that the American consumer, the American tourist, has a relatively short memory.’”

Other speakers expounded on the variety of life in the Gulf, the importance of the area to military training and the importance of the region’s ports. Following the formal meeting, the task force took the time to hear concerns from the public.
In between — and before ducking out to catch a flight to D.C. — Jackson fielded a few questions from the press in an upstairs room overlooking the theatre lobby.

“We’re here to make manifest the President’s commitment,” Jackson said, going on to comment on the task force’s “great progress” and Gulf Coast residents’ “incredible interest, love and passion.”

The EPA chief also had the opportunity to address recent discrepancies between Gulf research stemming from the halls of academia and reports hailing from governmental entities. While scientists from various universities and organizations have observed effects such as fish with lesions, liver damage and possible interruptions in the Gulf food chain, federal and state agencies have reported no such findings and maintain the Gulf is safe for fishing.

“I, frankly, welcome science that comes in that’s painting a different picture,” Jackson said.