NEW ORLEANS, LA. -- Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Kieran Suckling, is on his cell phone as he steers a rental car through downtown New Orleans. Beside him, the Center’s assistant director Sarah Bergman gives directions while working on a laptop and sending email from her cell.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, the controversial environmental organization has filed seven lawsuits worth $19 billion against BP and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Yet this is the first trip its busy directors have made to the place that they have been fighting to protect.
On the second day of Suckling and Bergman’s whirlwind tour of Louisiana, the White House Council on Environmental Quality released a long-awaited report which recommended ending the use of "categorical exclusions" to approve oil drilling in the gulf. Between that news, and an unrelated controversy involving off-road vehicle use in California, Suckling’s phone is even busier than usual as reporters call him for his reliably colorful quotes, and staff call to craft press releases.
He is on the phone as Bergman drives them south through a bayou forest dripping with Spanish moss. During lunch at a roadside diner in Larose, he is outside talking to a reporter from the New York Times while his grilled cheese sandwich (with jalapeño and tomato) gets cold on the table. And on the still-oiled beaches of Grand Isle, he strips off one blue glove to answer his phone while wading in the rainbow sheen of the surf.
Muckraking and Litigation
Most of the calls are from, or about, the media. The Center for Biological Diversity, which is based in Tucson, Arizona, has advocated for environmental change through a combination of muckraking and litigation for over 20 years. Their projects have ranged from preserving owl habitat to restricting pesticide use.
As the scope of the Deepwater Horizon disaster became evident, the Center was quick to take action.
“As soon as we realized it was going to be as bad as it was we’ve been working on it super intensively,” Suckling says. “I’d say 80 percent of my time has been spent on the Gulf since the explosion.”
The Center was instrumental in unveiling the federal Minerals Management Service’s cozy relationship with the offshore oil industry, which led to the dismantling of the agency.
But the organization’s main focus has been on lawsuits to hold BP and the government accountable for violations of the clean water act, the endangered species act, and other rules and regulations.
The Center’s litigation includes a suit to make BP and the Environmental Protection Agency reveal the chemical content of the dispersants, and another to stop 49 drilling projects that had been granted “categorical exemptions” from environmental review. A third suit seeks $19 billion in compensation from BP for violations of the Clean Water Act.
Bergman says that they are concerned that the Federal Government hasn’t signed on as a co-plaintiff in the Clean Water Act violation lawsuit.
“We expected them to join the suit within the first few days, but they haven’t,” Suckling adds. “So we don’t really know what is going to happen.”
A Whirlwind Tour
Even while Suckling and Bergman multitask, they are working to absorb as much of the environmental situation in Louisiana as they can. In keeping with the Center’s mission, their three-day trip is designed to assess not only the oil damage but also the overall diversity of the bayou ecosystem.
“We have a direct relationship with a lot of the issues we work on,” Suckling says. “But here I think we were missing that experience and connection. We’ve put our heart and soul into the work, but we hadn’t seen the place for ourselves.”
The pair starts the day off with a tour of the storm surge barrier that is being built eight miles east of New Orleans. The barrier is a massive wall, two miles long, standing 26 feet high and built from enough steel to make eight Eiffel Towers.