To fix Gulf's woes, think years and billions of dollars

John Hankinson Jr. views the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi coast this month. He is the fedsÂ’ pick to oversee the Gulf oil-spill cleanup and to put in place measures to prevent future disasters. (KEVIN SPEAR/ORLANDO SENTINEL)

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.

Polluted playground

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.