Eight years ago this month, a disaster of epic proportions began to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico.
A well below the Deepwater Horizon oil rig erupted, about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana — triggering a fiery explosion that killed 11 workers and injured many others, toppling and sinking the massive structure, and sending an estimated total of 210 million gallons of crude into the Gulf for nearly three months.
Considered the worst marine-based oil spill ever, the catastrophe resulted in both short- and long-term environmental damage. As the thick slicks spread, countless forms of wildlife were covered with oil, marshes in Louisiana and beaches in Northwest Florida were fouled, and the waterfront economies up and down the Gulf coast sustained significant losses.
Researchers continued to see the effects on marine animals - including the discovery of mutated fish and record numbers of dolphin deaths — for years.
One of the many responses was the creation of a credible, bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. In its January 2011 final report, the commission recommended, among other things, tighter controls on equipment designed to prevent blowouts.
It took the Interior Department until April 2015 to impose the Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control Rule, designed to stop explosions in undersea oil and gas wells. It was hardly a rush job.
In light of the commission's findings, the magnitude of the spill and the fact that the Deepwater Horizon rig was considered state-of-the-art, this rule was certainly warranted.
Yet the Trump administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have proposed changes to weaken the rule. For instance, Interior has called for reversing a requirement for frequent testing of blowout preventers, eliminating independent audits of safety and pollution-prevention equipment.
The increased risks associated with this proposal are compounded by the administration's announced plans to dramatically expand offshore areas — including those in the Gulf — where testing and drilling are allowed.
None of this is good for human safety or environmental protection.
In January, in a bipartisan gesture, 20 of Florida's 27 U.S. representatives signed a letter in opposition to the administration's stances — joining Sen. Bill Nelson in protesting the proposed rule changes and expansion of drilling.
Last week, Nelson and fellow Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington filed much-need legislation that would put the blowout-preventer and well-control rule into law. Their bill would also codify the Arctic Drilling Rule, which created special regulations affecting operations in icy waters.
The legislation is warranted to protect not only the marine environment and coastal economies but human lives. By codifying the rules in law, the legislation would require congressional approval for any changes in them.
Recollections of the Deepwater Horizon disaster may have faded a bit, so this eight-year anniversary is a reminder. Congress should pass Nelson's bill as a sign that the painful lessons learned have not been forgotten.
REPRINTED FROM THE NORTHWEST FLORIDA DAILY NEWS