April 18, 2020

I pray to God it never happens again: US gulf coast bears scars of historic oil spill 10 years on
The Deepwater Horizon devastated the ecology and economy from Texas to Florida but BP-funded recovery programs are ongoing and the sector is a big employerWhen the explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon Oil rig, Leo Linder was standing in his living quarters in his underwear. He suddenly found himself facing a fellow rig worker in what had been a separate room because the force of the explosion had blown the walls away.Linder wasn’t to know it at the time but the blast was to trigger the worst environment disaster in US history, with the BP operation spewing more than 4.9m barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling hundreds of miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida, decimating wildlife and crippling local fishing and tourism industries.The spill also had a human cost, with 11 workers dying in the disaster. One of them, Gordon Jones, had relieved Linder around an hour before the explosion. “He said, ‘What the hell are you doing, go home,’” Linder said. “In many ways he saved my life. The guilt from surviving, as well as the damage done, still gnaws at me. It kills me.”The 10th anniversary of the disaster, which began on 20 April 2010, marks a period of devastation and partial recovery, with billions of dollars extracted from BP to aid a clean-up that is still under way. Projects to replenish damaged oyster-catching areas and restore degraded marshland are ongoing. An enduring image of the spill was a brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, struggling in oily gunk. But a project to restore Queen Bess island, a crucial rookery for thousands of the birds, is only now nearing completion.The recovery has been patchy, with some businesses unable to recover and some people forced to move away.“It was a bit like a bad dream,” said Albertine Kimble, a retiree who has spent the past two decades in Carlisle, a small town south of New Orleans. “It was impending doom, it affected the fisheries and the birds. It was even more depressing than Hurricane Katrina and that flooded my house.”Kimble has had to raise her house twice on stilts due to the threat of flooding in an area prone to storms and coastal erosion accelerated by the climate crisis. The process has also been worsened by the oil and gas industry’s practice of forging canals through wetlands, which has introduced corrosive salt water. The nearby town of Pointe à la Hache was turned into a “ghost town” as fishing opportunities vanished, Kimble said.“It was a bit like the Coronavirus, just dead,” she said. “I don’t think it’s recovered, to tell you the truth.”The fishing industry is a major constituent of life in southern Louisiana and shutting down the ability to catch fish, oysters and shrimp was a major blow to communities. Many of the fishermen and Women used their boats to help the clean-up effort by deploying booms and spreading oil dispersant.Even after the Gulf was declared safe to fish in again, crews initially reported pulling in smaller catches of oddly deformed fish with oozing sores. Dolphins started dying in record numbers, tuna and amberjack developed deformities to their heart and other organs. Scientists have also found lingering problems within the web of marine life.Recent research by the University of Florida found the richness of species in the Gulf has declined by more than a third due to direct and indirect impacts of the spill. A separate study of 2,500 individual fish from 91 species by the University of South Florida found oil exposure in all of them.Many of the species are popular types of seafood. The extent of the exposure has startled researchers.“We were quite surprised that among the most contaminated species was the fast-swimming yellowfin tuna as they are not found at the bottom of the ocean where most oil pollution in the Gulf occurs,” said lead author Erin Pulster, a researcher at the university’s college of marine science.The seafood industry lost nearly $1bn, while house prices in the region declined by as much as 8% for at least five years, according to a report by the conservation group Oceana.“It was an entire Gulf of Mexico-wide event,” said Tracey Sutton, a marine scientist at Nova Southeastern University. told Oceana. “Nobody was ready for this scale of pollution. As far as we know, the actual impact of the spill is not over yet.”Deepwater Horizon exploded 40 miles off the coast and shot out oil that proved devilishly difficult to clean from the nooks and crannies of Louisiana’s marshland. An initial attempt to cap the spill was unsuccessful, necessitating the drilling of a secondary relief well to stem the flow. It took four months to completely stop the gushing oil.In all, BP paid out about $65n in compensation, legal fees and clean-up costs, which includes billions for affected states. A judge ruled the petrochemical giant was “grossly negligent” in the lead-up to the disaster. Subcontractors Transocean and Halliburton were “negligent”, the judge said.The payment of the compensation money adds to the complex relationship states like Louisiana, which bore the brunt of the spill, have with the oil industry. The industry caused an environmental and societal catastrophe along the coast and is contributing towards the climate crisis that threatens more and more of the state with inundation each year.But the compensation paid has helped fund various coastal conservation projects and oil and gas remain major, and largely popular, employers in the region. Linder was only on Deepwater Horizon because the pay was four times the $28,000 a year he was earning as an English teacher.“I don’t think anyone realized right off the bat we’d have this unprecedented natural disaster,” said Chip Kline, an assistant to Governor John Bel Edwards and chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).“During the spill there were some intense moments with BP but in Louisiana we have an economy largely driven by oil and gas; it employs a lot of Louisiana residents. We try to strike a balance.”A decade on, with an incomplete recovery, coastal Gulf communities face a Trump Administration that is attempting to reverse many of the safety-based regulations imposed after the oil spill. Residents are hoping this won’t lead to a repeat.“It made me sick to the stomach thinking about all the oil out there in the beautiful Gulf of Mexico,” said Kimble. “I hope and pray to God it never happens again.”
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