Migratory Bird Protections Stripped Right Before Deepwater Horizon Disaster Anniversary

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Today marks the eighth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people and spilled more than 210 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. All told, more than 1 million birds, at least 1,000 bottle-nosed dolphins and many other species were killed in the four years after the spill. While the Gulf Coast is still recovering from this disaster, it could have been much worse without our country’s landmark environmental laws, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). BP paid $100 million-dollars in criminal fines under this Act that supported wetland and migratory bird conservation.

But on the eve of our nation’s biggest environmental disaster, the Trump administration issued new guidance that precludes the enforcement of the MBTA in preventable events like the Deepwater Horizon spill, allowing companies to forego practical best management practices to protect birds as they no longer face enforcement for failing to do so. What’s more, about 500,000 to 1 million birds die in oil pits and with the issuance of this guidance, this number is likely to increase.

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The MBTA was enacted by Congress 100 years ago this year, and has been read by federal agencies, the Department of Justice and the courts as protecting birds not just from unauthorized hunting, but also from being trapped, poisoned or otherwise killed by industrial operations. Under that interpretation, the Department of the Interior has worked for decades with industries to develop common sense best management practices to avoid and reduce avian mortality from such threats as oil evaporation pits, transmission lines, cell towers, and wind energy facilities.

On December 22, 2017, the Solicitor for the Department of the Interior issued a legal memorandum reversing the longstanding interpretation of the MBTA’s application to incidental take of birds, exempting industry from any legal obligations to prevent bird fatalities. The Solicitor’s legal opinion runs counter to the United States’ commitment under international agreements to protect migratory birds.

On January 11, 2018, a bipartisan coalition of 17 former Department of the Interior officials who served over the last 40 years sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke condemning the Department’s legal reinterpretation of the MBTA that could unravel the department’s successful work with industry to reduce foreseeable bird deaths and advance bird conservation.

On April 4, 2018, Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and 8 of their colleagues on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke requesting that he reconsider the Department of the Interior’s reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to exclude liability for industries that kill birds. The Senators requested that the Secretary continue to fully enforce this foundational conservation law to protect hundreds of migratory bird species across the country.

Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and 62 of his colleagues sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him to suspend a concerning new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) exempting industries from liability that incidentally — but predictably — kill birds. The Congressional representatives requested that the Secretary continue to fully enforce this foundational conservation law consistent with the legislative intent of the MBTA to protect hundreds of migratory bird species across the country from being killed by industrial hazards.

The Deepwater Horizon tragedy is a vivid reminder of what happens when oil companies cut corners. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act required BP to address the deaths of 1 million birds. But now the Trump administration has eviscerated the safeguards of this landmark wildlife conservation law by exempting industry from liability when their negligent activities predictably kill migratory birds. On the centennial of the Act, and the anniversary of our nation’s biggest environmental disaster, Congress and the Trump administration should protect Migratory Bird Treaty Act instead of letting industry off the hook for unmitigated bird deaths.

- Jamie

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