Mr. President, as you well know, it has been 3 months since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in a massive fireball, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. But the extent of this tragedy is still beyond comprehension for everyone in this country. Since then, as we all know, as much as 50,000 barrels of oil per day has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. At that rate, the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska has been duplicated every 4 days. I don’t think that when this started, anyone thought that was possible.
There are many resources down there, as we know. It was slow going at first, but now we see more than 6,800 vessels, 117 aircraft, 3 million feet of boom, and more than 45,000 personnel.
In May, I went on an aerial tour of the spill while I was in New Orleans. I saw firsthand the miles and miles of oil slick covering the gulf, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people in the gulf coast as well as some of our Nation’s most precious wildlife.
Our priorities are clear. First, we have to plug this well. We know there are some efforts underway as we speak, as well as a long-term plan of pushing some cement in there, that we know may not be completed until mid-August.
The second is that BP and others responsible must pay so that the taxpayers of our State of Minnesota as well as States across the country are not on the hook. The $20 billion the President and others negotiated with BP was a very strong start because, as we know, what happened with the Exxon Valdez—20 years later, a lot of those families still had not gotten their money. Mr. President, 8,000 of the plaintiffs and fishermen died before they got their money in that case.
Third, we need to figure out what happened so this never happens again.
Fourth, we need to reform the agencies that were supposed to be the watchdogs but turned out to be the lapdogs and redouble our efforts to diversify the energy supply.
I have focused on addressing this disaster because I believe we owe it to the taxpayers and because this disaster has devastated the resources that belong to all Americans. Now, as we face the worst environmental disaster in our Nation’s history, we cannot lose sight of a piece of it that I don’t think has gotten enough attention. Why? Because we have not even seen it play out yet. We have seen that wildlife down there right now. We have seen the pelicans drenched with oil hobbling on the beaches. We have seen all that. But what we have not seen yet—and we have no idea of the extent of the problem yet—is what is going to happen to the 13 million migratory birds, waterfowl coming from Minnesota, coming from Wisconsin, that winter in the gulf coast in those marshes.
At first, no one, understandably, focused on the unsettling proposition that millions of birds that winter in the gulf every fall and winter will be faced with toxic shorelines and toxic marshes, but as the oil laps up on the shore, we have to face this unacceptable but real problem right now.
As you know, in our State we know summer has arrived when we hear the loon calls from our 10,000 lakes. Minnesota is home to half a million ducks and the largest population of loons in the continental United States. Hunting and wildlife watching is part of our heritage, but it is also an important part of our economy. Waterfowl hunting contributes almost $50 million in economic activity in Minnesota every year, and Minnesota has the third highest birding participation rate of all States, at 33 percent or 1.5 million people.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is heading up the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, which will come up with an estimate of restoration costs that will be sent to BP for them to pay to help clean up the shorelines, the estuaries, and the marshes. Additionally, the new escrow account that has been created will help ensure that the claims process for individuals and businesses runs smoothly and efficiently, and it will also help ensure that claims by government—State, local, and tribal—that are submitted to BP will not be delayed by a slow claims process.
But, while the Unified National Incident Command is doing all it can to stop the leak, it is important that we simultaneously do all we can to protect the habitat of the birds and the ducks in the gulf that support our hunting and birding economy in this country.
In just a few weeks, millions of birds will begin to migrate south from Canada, from the Great Plains and parts of the Midwest. They will fly hundreds or even thousands of miles to the gulf coast, where they spend their winters. Remember, all we have seen so far is just the birds that live down there in the heat. Think of when all the birds go down there. This is what they are going to find. They are going to find that beaches that used to have beach balls are now filled with tar balls. So many of them go to the marshes and the wetlands, and the oil is starting to creep into those marshes. We cannot really put up a sign for those birds that says: Hey, go to Mexico instead. There are naturally other places they could go, but, guess what. They can’t read. Nor are we going to be able to put some big net up to stop them from flying to those places. I talked to people, experts on this, from Ducks Unlimited and other places. These birds do not have the instinct to avoid those oily areas. They are going to just plow back in where they went last winter. That is why a bipartisan group of Senators joined me in sending a letter to Secretary Salazar to ensure that proper attention and coordination is also made with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and conservation organizations that are working to protect the habitat of migratory birds.
I am pleased that just this week, the National Incident Command announced the launch of a new Web site, restorethegulf.gov, dedicated to providing the American people with clear and accessible information and resources related to the BP oilspill response and recovery.
It is also important that as we focus on stopping this terrible leak, we also prepare for the serious and imminent threats to the birds and wildlife that play a critical role in the regional gulf economies and to the more distant regional economies in places such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In just a few weeks, we must be ready for the mass influx of ducks and birds in the gulf region. If we fail to prepare, countless unsuspecting birds, wildlife, will not return to Minnesota and our ecosystems and economies will feel the impact, not just in Minnesota but throughout the country; not just in Louisiana, not just in Florida. It will spread. We will continue to push, with the recovery efforts, to make sure there is adequate focus on this important issue.