Last Christmas, BP launched a new national ad campaign to tout its progress in cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico 20 months after its deepwater well exploded on April 20, 2010, causing the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
“We know we still have work to do,” Iris Cross, a New Orleans native and 29-year BP employee, says in one of the ads. “But BP has had a business presence in the Gulf states for a long time, we’ve set aside tens of billions of dollars to fund the recovery and restoration effort, and we plan to be here for years to come.”
Just three months later, in March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report that made clear just how far away we are from declaring the end of the Gulf cleanup.
The report described “unprecedented” harm to dolphins in the area of the 2010 spill, a vast stretch of the Gulf south of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coasts and the Florida panhandle.
Carcasses of 675 dolphins were recovered in the region between February 2010 and February 2012, or roughly 337 each year, the report said; the average number of “strandings” annually in the northern Gulf from 2002 to 2009 was 74. And the 159 carcasses recovered in Louisiana waters after the spill was eight times higher than the historical average, the NOAA scientists reported.
In addition, nearly all of the 32 live dolphins captured and studied in Barataria Bay, one of Louisiana’s hardest-hit areas during the spill, were underweight, anemic, and suffered from liver or kidney disease, and half had abnormally low levels of hormones, the study said. The symptoms “are consistent with those seen in other mammals exposed to oil,” the scientists said.
About the same time, NOAA released another study, also using the word “unprecedented” to describe damage to a coral colony at the bottom of the ocean seven miles from the site of BP’s well blowout. The colony, usually thriving with marine life, was covered in brown muck, said one scientist on the study who viewed the colony from a research submarine. “It was like a graveyard of corals,” Erik Cordes, a biologist from Temple University, told the Associated Press.
On the surface, the Gulf of Mexico does appear to be returning to normal two years after the calamity on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers and sent more than 200 million gallons of crude oil gushing into sea over the next three months. New Orleans seafood restaurants are again packing in customers, tourists have returned in droves to Alabama’s white beaches, and commercial fishermen are plying the waters for shrimp, crabs, oysters, grouper, snapper, and other favored species of fish.
But beneath the surface—in some cases only a few feet below the sand and surf—lurk a host of hazards: thick tar mats, petrochemicals absorbed by marine life, and particles of oil broken down by chemical dispersants that have settled to the ocean bottom.
“We still have four to five times more oil left in the Gulf than you had in the Gulf of Alaska after the Exxon Valdez,” said Garret Graves, Louisiana’s director of coastal protection and restoration. The state of Alaska says about 11 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Alaska’s Prince William Sound after the Valdez tanker grounded in 1989; government estimates say at least 46 million gallons of crude oil remain unrecovered in the Gulf of Mexico since the BP spill.
Adverse effects, mostly invisible to the public, continue to be documented by scientists:
- Killifish, a small fish often used for bait that are usually plentiful in marshy areas of the Gulf, are suffering from chronic illnesses as a result of absorbing toxic chemicals;
- Insects like ants and crickets are disappearing from wetlands that still contain petrochemicals in soils and water;
- At the bottom of the food chain, zooplankton is still being found contaminated by traces of oil.
“We’re seeing a number of anomalies in the Gulf,” said Graves, who chairs the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The dolphin deaths are “very concerning,” he said. And while shrimp, oysters and other seafood have been extensively tested and declared safe for consumption, “the overall productivity of the Gulf is something that will take additional time to measure,” Graves said.
The Coast Guard and BP have jointly declared that response efforts in the Gulf have transitioned from cleanup to restoration activities, but Louisiana is strongly urging federal and industry officials to slow down, Graves said.
When tar balls are still washing up on beaches and tar mats continue turning up just beneath the surface, the state wants BP to stop waiting for reports of oil waste before sending out cleanup crews and become more proactive about seeking it out and cleaning it up, he said.
“This is one of the largest oil companies in the world that is drilling in waters more than a mile deep, and for them to say they can’t find it is just laughable,” Graves said.
BP agreed on the first anniversary of the spill to put up $1 billion for early restoration efforts in the Gulf as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment now being conducted by government scientists. Most consider that to be just a small down payment on the amount that will ultimately be needed to study, monitor, and restore the Gulf of Mexico.
With federal and state charges still pending against BP and its partners in the Deepwater Horizon drilling operation, there is the potential for more than $20 billion to be collected in civil or criminal penalties. Congress is nearing final passage of a law that would require 85 percent of any fines recovered by spill litigation to go back into Gulf restoration.
But even if that much money is pumped into the ecosystem, it could still take 10 or 15 years to fully understand all the damage that was done by the spill, Graves said.