John Hankinson Jr., a veteran of many of Florida's biggest environmental battles, is now the federal government's point man for one of the nation's most pressing challenges: cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Earlier this month, Hankinson stood by the water in Mississippi, near the midpoint of the 1,600-mile-long arc that the Gulf's shoreline forms between the Florida Keys and the Texas- Mexico border. He took in what he could of an ecosystem regarded as a treasure but treated like a toilet — marred by obliterated sea-grass beds, vanquished oyster reefs, debilitated marshes and algae-blighted waters.
And those are just some of the ailments that predate the oil spill.
About 120 miles south of where Hankinson was standing that day, a well drilled in the Gulf floor for the British oil company BP PLC had erupted in late April, destroying a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 workers and spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil during 87 days. Scientists expect it will take years to understand all of the harm caused by the offshore spill, and even longer to fix it.
Since his appointment in October, it has been Hankinson's job to develop a federal strategy for the Gulf, using fines and damages paid by BP, that will repair the damage from the oil spill and fix the longer-term problems caused by decades of pollution, coastal development and dredging.
"This will probably kill me," the St. Augustine resident said of the challenge, which others describe as incomprehensibly large and complex, because it involves everything from changing how Iowa farmers drain their fields into the Mississippi River to digging tar balls out of once-pristine beaches along the Florida Panhandle.
Disaster and opportunity are constant companions in the Gulf of Mexico, the world's ninth-largest sea.
It is a catcher's mitt for hurricanes such as Ivan, which pummeled Pensacola in 2004, and Katrina, which killed hundreds of New Orleans residents in 2005. It collects treated sewage and stormwater, and drains much of the nation's watersheds between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains.
Nearly 35 million Americans live within 100 miles of the Gulf, whose coast is lined with refineries, power and chemical plants, casinos and shipping ports.
It satisfies a quarter of the nation's daily appetite for petroleum.
It also is among the nation's most popular playgrounds and fishing spots; generates 73 percent of the shrimp and 67 percent of the oysters harvested in the U.S.; and sustains a rich variety of wildlife, including the brown pelican, bottlenose dolphin, loggerhead turtle, whale shark and bluefin tuna.
"America needs the Gulf to be clean," U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus wrote in September in a spill report sent to President Barack Obama.
During the past three decades, Hankinson has been an environmental activist, a state water manager and a regional director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working on behalf of imperiled environments such as the Wekiva River near Orlando, the Everglades in South Florida and the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle.
Now, as executive director of the new Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force — whose formation was proposed by the Mabus report — Hankinson will need all of the experience gained from his struggles with those earlier projects as he works to compile by Oct. 4 of next year a list of environmental goals for the Gulf of Mexico and a timeline for achieving them.
He counts among his assets the support of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who chose Hankinson for the job and is from New Orleans, the U.S. city perhaps most closely tied to the Gulf's fate.
"She's very direct and very clear about making this a priority," Hankinson said of the task force.
Billions in play
He also expects to have lots of money — billions of dollars — in his corner, as the government moves against BP financially on two fronts.
The first involves a Natural Resource Damage Assessment that will calculate how much to bill BP for repairing the environmental damage caused by the spilled oil and the chemical dispersants used to chop the crude into smaller droplets.
Federal agencies and five states have deployed hundreds of researchers to take stock of everything spill-related, from the more easily found problems, such as oil buried in beach sand, to the less-obvious losses, such as reduced populations of sea turtles.
There's also damage that hasn't been found because it hasn't occurred yet.
"It appears that there is still oil hanging around that has sunk and is near the shore, and potentially may re-oil some beach areas," said Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and the state's trustee for damage assessments.
Spending that damage-assessment money could take years. For example, the final restoration project for a 1993 barge collision that dumped 330,000 gallons of oil on mangroves, sea grasses and beaches by the entrance to Tampa Bay is still months from happening.
The second source of money for Hankinson's Gulf restoration work is the fine pending against BP for violating the federal Clean Water Act. Based on the 200 million gallons of crude that gushed from the broken well, the fine could total as much as $21 billion, if the company and its drilling partners are found to be highly negligent.
BP argues that the spill estimates as calculated by government-supervised scientists are too high. That and other factors could ultimately reduce the size of the fine. But some experts, such as Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University oceanography professor, think any final estimate should also include the methane gas ejected from the ruptured well, and that would boost the estimated total nearly 40 percent.
"It would increase the fine," MacDonald said.
Environmental groups, Mabus and the presidential commission investigating the Deepwater Horizon disaster have all called on Congress to dedicate a significant share of any BP fine to restoring some of the dozens of areas in the Gulf of Mexico in need of repair, from the sickly Laguna Madre of south Texas to the imperiled Florida Bay wedged between the Everglades and the Keys.
Hankinson was in Mississippi earlier this month because a $21 billion reconstruction of Deer Island, which sits a few hundred yards from Biloxi's waterfront casinos, is already under way.
Rebuilding the 5-mile-long island will require dredging up 2 million cubic feet of sand from the bottom of Mississippi Sound — a massive ecosystem intrusion that could have been swamped by controversy. But the five years and 60 meetings it took to launch the project minimized any opposition, according to that state's director of marine resources, William Walker.
Said Hankinson: "If I can get everybody to play nice in the rest of the Gulf, I'll be able to get my job done."
Among the more contentious projects under consideration: the much-called-for rebuilding of Louisiana's wetlands, which have been chopped up by oil-drilling operations and cut off from the Mississippi River's renourishment over time. Another major challenge — a "dead zone" of oxygen-starved water in the Gulf that extends from the mouth of the Mississippi to Texas' Galveston Bay — would require geographically distant solutions, for it is partly the result of polluted runoff from farms in the Midwest.
"Progress would be if we could stop it [dead zone] from growing and then begin to reduce it," said Phil Bass, state-policy coordinator for the EPA's Gulf of Mexico Program Office. "But we haven't been able to stop it from growing."
Though many scientists and environmental groups think every effort should be made to repair all damage from the spill, ultimately the most effective response to the BP disaster, they say, would be to shrink the dead zone, repair the Louisiana wetlands and otherwise nurse the Gulf back to health.
"What I've found often, working in environmental management, is it's often not one 'stressor,' as scientists like to call it, that's causing the collapse of an environment, but the interaction of several," Hankinson said.
Kevin Spear can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5062.
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