On April 20, 2010, at 9:45 p.m., a bubble of methane gas shot up the drill column of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and ignited. The explosion killed 11 of the 126 workers onboard, injuring 17 others, and was visible from dozens of miles away. The Deepwater Horizon burned for nearly two days before finally sinking into the sea, leaving behind a wellhead that pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of hundreds of thousands of gallons per day. What followed was the worst marine oil spill of all time and one of the single worst ecological disasters in human history.
For months, attempts were made to close the well. The blowout preventer, which was supplied by Cameron International Corporation, a supplier of many oil industry technical systems, turned out to be faulty and did not stop the flow. Containment domes had been used successfully on shallower spills in the past, so a 125-ton dome was placed over the well. The idea was to control the oil slow rate through a valve at the top of the dome, but the cold water and gases from the well formed crystals in the valve. Oil kept seeping into the ocean. The dome was scrapped.
It was around that time that blowing the well up was considered. No, really. It sounds like a wacky B-movie plot, but officials considered using conventional or nuclear explosives to seal up the well. The risk of creating cracks in the sea floor and creating a completely unstoppable spill (along with the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty’s ban on nuking the ocean) killed that idea. Instead, a capping system that would transport oil from the damaged wellhead to the surface was installed. After several modifications, the final cap was installed and the three month long oil spill was over.
It’s been nearly one year since the well was capped and oil stopped flowing into the sea. For the most part, we know why the Deepwater Horizon exploded and why it took three months to stop the spill. But its impacts on the Gulf of Mexico and coastal communities still haven’t been fully grasped. The tourism and seafood industries in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi coastal communities are still trying to recover from the impact of the spill. Some businesses may never recover. Thousands of animals died as a result of the spill and it’s a possibility that some species, like the Louisiana pancake batfish, whose range was entirely within the spill zone, could have been wiped out entirely.
Media coverage may have virtually stopped after the well was capped, but capping the well didn’t get rid of all of the oil in the Gulf. Petroleum isn’t the kind of material that dissipates easily or cleanly. Certain types of bacteria can eat the stuff, but there’s only so much that they can consume. Imagine being taken out to a farm and shown a field full of cows. There are more cows than you care to count, and they go to the horizon and back. Now imagine being told to eat every last one of them as fast as you can. That’s the basic situation in the Gulf. According to an article in The Nation earlier this year, oil residue has accumulated and spread across the sea floor. Additionally, some bacteria samples collected show signs of not just toxicity, but mutation.
Let’s give that some perspective. After the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, mutations started showing up in the local salmon population. Some had an extra fin, some had enlarged hearts and some were stunted. To this day, the ecosystem of the Alaskan coast where the Exxon Valdez spill occurred has not fully recovered. 11,000,000 gallons of oil were spilled by Exxon Valdez.
Roughly 210,000,000 gallons of oil leaked into the ocean during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. According to ABC News, oil covers nearly 80 square miles around the wellhead, and little to no life can survive on the sea floor in that area. According to statistics released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 75 percent of the total spilled oil remains in the ecosystem of the gulf. As recently as April, dead dolphins, which have been washing up on beaches at close to 50 times the normal rates, had oil on their bodies. Even now, a full year out from the spill, the scope of the ecological impact is uncertain. One thing at least is certain: the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico has been changed forever.
The effects of the spill haven’t just been isolated to the gulf itself. I spoke with Bethany Kraft, Executive Director of Alabama Coastal Foundation about the impact the spill had on coastal communities in Alabama. “We are used to taking our resources for granted here,” Kraft says. “We assume that the waters will always be there for us to fish in or boat on. We can’t imagine not just being able to pick up and head to the beach on a whim.”
Not only did locals find it difficult to adjust to the radical changes the spill brought, communities that rely on seafood and tourism to bring money in struggled to make ends meet right from the outset of the spill. Turns out people don’t want to eat seafood or lounge on beaches that have been contaminated with crude oil. Nearly 87,000 square miles of federal waters were closed for the second half of 2010, and parcels of water still contaminated with oil have been intermittently closed and opened until as recently as April. Fortunately, all waters once closed were reopened in April. Unsafe levels of toxic hydrocarbons had been found in multiple seafood samples for months after the spill, but NOAA determined that 99 percent of fish, oyster, crab and shrimp samples were free of contaminants. Unfortunately, seafood being safe to eat doesn’t mean jack squat if nobody wants to eat it. “Polling numbers for people’s beliefs about seafood safety haven’t budged much in the past several months,” Kraft says. “About 60 percent of people nationally still have doubts as to whether the seafood is safe to consume, but this is a perception problem as opposed to a scientific one.”
In the direct aftermath of the spill, many people canceled their plans to spend the summer in pleasant coastal communities. BP and statelevel governments injected millions of dollars into tourism and seafood advertising to protect businesses that were at risk of failing. Fortunately for many Gulf towns, it’s been working. “I haven’t seen any hard numbers on tourism for this season, but I’ve been to the beach . . . and it’s a much different story than last year at this time,” Kraft says. “I know good crowds this year can’t make up for lost tourists last year, but this is a good start.”
Things are steadily improving for towns affected by the spill, but not everything has survived unscathed. Many of the lawsuits being brought against BP were filed by businesses that could no longer operate after the spill. Coastal towns like Mobile are still missing some of the critical resources they rely on to operate. “One of our biggest jobs right now is determining exactly what the short and long term impacts of the spill are and determining how best we can restore our lost resources,” Kraft says. Public perception of seafood may seem like a passing issue, but it’s essential that the public trust in gulf caught fish be restored if the region is to recover.
There is some good news on that front though: people forgot and moved on. While this might at first seem like a bad thing, it is essential that people move past their thoughts on the spill in order for normalcy to return to the Gulf. It’s easy to lament public forgetfulness. Once a news story isn’t fresh anymore, people move on. But what’s the alternative? Never forget? If people never forgot what happened last year in the gulf, nobody would ever have another bowl of shrimp gumbo in Louisiana, and nobody would ever lie out on the beaches of Florida again. In this particular case, it’s for the best that public perception of the spill move on as fast as possible.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take anything away from the Deepwater Horizon experience. There are lessons to be learned here and opportunities to be taken. “We are at a crossroads in Alabama, and really across the entire Gulf region,” Kraft says. “Billions of dollars in Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Clean Water Act fines will soon flow into the region from BP and other responsible parties. We can bicker and fight with each other, vying for our share of the pie . . . or we can look to the future and decide today that we don’t want the fate of say, the Chesapeake, to be the Gulf ’s fate. To recover in a way that makes our coastal communities stronger.” From the dark, oiled waters of the Gulf comes the possibility of a new beginning—a brighter tomorrow—for the coast.
And maybe, just maybe, the businesses that were responsible for the disaster have learned a lesson too. Maybe that mad pursuit of a profit margin isn’t worth it if the consequences for failure are impossible to weather? Who knows? But hopefully the risk of getting buried in litigation and losing tons of business (along with new government regulations) will prevent something like the Deepwater Horizon explosion from ever happening again.
Andy McWhorter is a Birmingham Weekly editorial assistant. He also writes our weekly feature “Hot seat/limelight.” Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.