By Courtney Mattison & Rachel Devorah
It’s a heartbreaking yet familiar scene. Oil disasters of catastrophic proportions, seeping and sludging all over marine and coastal habitats; hundreds of dead seabirds and dolphins; sick residents and failing coastal economies. The same irrevocable accidents continue to occur. It’s easy to see history repeating itself, posing the inevitable question: will we ever learn from our mistakes?
As the five-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster approaches on April 20, the effects of this devastating accident are still raw throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The 2010 catastrophe spewed approximately 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in America’s worst environmental crisis to date and the second largest oil disaster in world history next to the 1991 Gulf War spill, during which Iraqi forces intentionally released 252-336 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. British Petroleum (BP) has paid over $28 billion in damage claims and cleanup costs and pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including manslaughter for the 11 men killed when the oil rig exploded. United States District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP to be grossly negligent – a charge that may result in additional fines amounting to $18 billion in new civil penalties (far surpassing the $3.5 billion BP initially reserved) pending a federal investigation by a court in New Orleans. The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) was restructured to separate the agency that oversees safety from the one that oversees revenue collection. Most of the major challenges from this tragedy may appear to be nearly resolved, but that is far from the case.
The ecosystems and communities affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster are far from healed. They are sick and they are struggling. Gulf Coast communities still haven’t received the billions of dollars they were promised. Some of the most distressing effects of Deepwater Horizon are still being discovered, with a new study recently published in the journal PLOS One suggesting that Corexit 9500 – the chemical most widely used to disperse oil in the Gulf of Mexico – likely caused respiratory damage in exposed humans and marine life by degrading cell tissues found in their lungs and gills.
Last month, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) published an annual report titled Five Years and Counting: Gulf wildlife in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which provides a comprehensive analysis of publicly available research on the effects of the disaster on the Gulf ecosystem. The federal government is still building its case against BP for the ongoing trial so not all research findings have been released, but the available evidence underscores how much damage persists in the Gulf today as well as the fact that it may take decades for researchers to properly assess the full scale of the disaster.
The following excerpt from the NWF report summarizes its findings:
- In 2014, dolphins on the Louisiana coast were found dead at four times historic rates, and there is increasing evidence that these ongoing dolphin deaths are connected to the 2010 oil disaster.
- Between 27,000 and 65,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are estimated to have died in 2010, and the annual numbers of Kemp’s ridley nests have declined in the years since the spill.
- Twelve percent of the brown pelicans and 32 percent of the laughing gulls in the northern Gulf are estimated to have died as a result of the BP oil spill.
- Oil and dispersant compounds have been found in the eggs of white pelicans nesting in three states— Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
- Exposure to oil has been shown to cause abnormal development in many species of fish, including mahi-mahi, Gulf killifish and bluefin and yellowfin tuna.
- Spotted seatrout, also known as speckled trout, spawned less frequently in 2011 in both Louisiana and Mississippi than in previous years.
- Both 2010 and 2011 had the lowest numbers of juvenile red snapper seen in the eastern Gulf fishery since 1994.
- Coral colonies in five separate locations in the Gulf – three in the deep sea and two in shallower waters – are showing significant oil damage.
- Sperm whales are spending less time foraging in the area around the wellhead.
- Oil has been found in sediments deep in the Gulf of Mexico, in a 1,200-square-mile area surrounding the wellhead.
Last year, Dr. Barbara Block and her team from Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that crude oil interferes with fish heart cells, giving fish like tuna in the Gulf heart attacks. National Geographic reports that the oil also killed mangrove trees, causing islands such as Cat Island to wash away at a greater rate and removing nesting habitat for pelicans. BP has claimed in its own study that marine life in the Gulf is recovering and remaining damage is negligible.
Watchdog researchers like Dr. Bonny Schumaker of On Wings of Care – a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of wildlife, wild habitat, and natural ecosystems – and Dr. Mandy Joye, an oil spill expert and founder of the Joye Research Group at University of Georgia, are working tirelessly to expose the extent of the Deepwater disaster. On Wings of Care has flown with members of the U.S. Coast Guard, researchers, political leaders and the media over the Gulf to monitor and document oil slicks and marine life. “The scientists that I would take out, they were absolutely changed once I took them out there in the plane and they saw with their own eyes,” Schumaker said in an interview with Oceana. “We were flying over miles and miles and miles of nonstop oil… that’s when they realized that this is really bad.”
While the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is the largest in American history, it certainly isn’t the only source of oil causing damage to our ocean and coastlines today. Oil leaks and spills from offshore drilling and transport equipment all the time, and oil disasters occur far more frequently than reported. The Department of Interior (DOI) reports that the number of offshore oil-related accidents and injuries has increased per oil producing well since 2010 in American waters. The U.S. government has made changes to its offshore oil drilling policies and safety protocols, including new regulations announced this month for the design, operation and maintenance of oil well blowout preventers. The DOI now requires access to “containment dome technology” – a dome that can cover an exploded well to prevent gushing oil from spreading – for any company performing deep sea drilling in the Gulf, and nearly doubled the number of safety inspectors in the area. The Environmental Protection Agency is also reviewing its policies governing the use of dispersants and other chemical and biological products on oil spills in U.S. waters, and is accepting public comments through April 22. However, the Obama Administration recently approved an expansion of oil exploration along the Atlantic coast and the DOI is now reviewing a proposal to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast.
If the United States is to move into an era of foreign oil independence and protect its natural environment from the atrocious and avoidable effects of deepwater drilling accidents (not to mention climate change and ocean acidification), we must prioritize renewable energy solutions and wean ourselves from oil. It’s that simple. As Dr. Sylvia Earle says, “Just as we have the power to harm the ocean, we have the power to put in place policies and modify our own behavior in ways that would be an insurance policy for the future of the sea, for the creatures there, and for us, protecting special critical areas in the ocean.”
Submit comments on the EPA’s proposed new rules governing the use of dispersants and other chemical and biological products on oil spills in U.S. waters through Wednesday, April 22 (Earth Day) HERE.
Read the full National Wildlife Foundation report: Five Years & Counting
A new film by Margaret Brown explores the fallout from Deepwater Horizon in the lives of Americans in the southern U.S. The Great Invisible premieres Monday, April 20, at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Pivot TV.
Featured Image (top): Oil released from the failed Deepwater Horizon wellhead rises up to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico amidst an offshore platform drilling a relief well. © Daniel Beltrá