Today marks the day when one year ago, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico less than 50 miles from Louisiana’s coastline, killing 11 workers whose bodies were never recovered. The platform burned for nearly two days before it collapsed and sank, along with the mile-long riser pipe that connected it to the oil and gas deposits more than 15,000 feet below the water’s surface. The blowout preventer on the well, sitting a mile beneath the surface in a state of disrepair, failed to contain the escaping oil and gas. BP engineers attempted to seal the well for 84 days as crude oil gushed into the water, creating the biggest oil disaster the U.S. has ever seen.
A year later, communities along the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are still struggling to reclaim their pre-oil-spill ways of life, but in an almost schizophrenic fashion. While shrimpers, fisherman, and others who draw their living directly from the Gulf assert that not enough is being done to clean up the contaminated ecosystem, Gulf coast municipalities, tourism bureaus, and businesses catering to vacationers publicize pristine white beaches and clear Gulf waters as if an oil spill never happened.
Of course, every business and individual coping with BP’s massive oil spill has to protect his own interest, whether it’s filing a lawsuit for illness or lost wages, drawing attention to the oil that continues to choke the Gulf, or projecting an image that life’s a beach and everything is ok. But all of these mixed messages can obscure the facts and make the true state of the Gulf more of a mystery than anything.
It’s true that many places along the Gulf Coast appear to have recovered completely, especially along the beaches of Florida’s panhandle where the sugar-white sand has been raked and cleaned of oil deposits and tar balls. Yet in less visited areas, oil deposits still cover the sand. In parts of Louisiana, thick coats of crude oil continue to blanket beaches and wetlands where many animals vital to the Gulf ecosystem nest and breed. Cleaning crews can be found in some of these areas using giant rakes attached to cranes to gut the wetland soil, possibly exacerbating the environmental damage.
Many reports from the region earlier this year said that the oil appeared to have disappeared, leading some researchers to speculate that microbes in the Gulf’s warm waters devoured it. But ongoing studies (there are currently 60 in progress), have confirmed the presence of oil on the Gulf floor and suspended above it in plumes in wide, miles-long patches. The effect this oil will have in the future is still unknown, but the consensus among scientists is that it will not be beneficial in any way. Microbes that devour oil and other hydrocarbons in the water use enormous quantities of oxygen. Researchers are already finding enormous zones in the Gulf that are starved of the life-giving gas.
Dolphin and turtle carcasses continue to wash onto shore in numbers that indicate an abnormal mortality event. According to Canadian scientists, the ratio of dolphin, whale, narwhal, and turtle deaths evidenced by these carcasses to the bodies of animals typically found on shore indicated the mortality rate now could be 50 times higher than normal.
Similarly, fishermen who have fished the Gulf for years are finding fish with conditions and diseases they have never seen before, in different parts of the Gulf from the mouth of Mississippi River to Pensacola. Florida fishermen, for instance, have been catching red snapper with dark lesions on their skin much larger than a quarter, decayed fins, holes in their muscle tissue, discoloration, and inflamed organs. Scientists who examined the fish say that wound healing has become an issue. Fish anomalies were also found in Alaska in 1993, four years after the Exxon-Valdez spill compromised the immune systems of the fish population, completely eradicating the once plentiful herring population in Prince William Sound.
Although the Exxon-Valdez spill (previously the biggest U.S. oil spill) and the BP oil disaster share many environmental, sociological, and legal parallels, the fact remains that the country and the world have never witnessed an environmental calamity on the scale of the BP oil spill. Almost every scientist studying the BP oil spill’s impact on the Gulf agrees that the disaster is without precedent, making it a learn-as-you-g0 process and a mystery that may unfold for years to come.