Thursday marked the one year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. 11 rig workers were killed and 16 injured in the initial explosion. And, after nearly 5 million barrels of oil spewed in to the ocean for five months, the long term effects on the Gulf of Mexico are still being uncovered.
BP and the US government say the area is clean, after using dangerous dispersant chemicals to break up oil on the surface and releasing hydrocarbon-eating bacteria into the ocean.
Yet, below the sanitised surface, oil cakes the sea bed, is embedded in the ecosystem and lies hidden under the sand. Finally, from behind the PR machine a darker, stickier mess is emerging – the subject of new Greenpeace report: Deepwater Horizon One Year On.
The Gulf of Mexico today
Beaches remain closed across the Louisiana coast: the black slick may have gone, but tar balls – from the BP spill, but also others – litter the white sands. Grand Isle State Park beach in Louisiana is covered with weathered blobs of oil, as witnessed by Ed Crooks for the Financial Times.
A few miles away, Elmer’s Island remains locked 24/7 to the public after Louisiana State University Environmental Scientist Ralph Portier discovered ‘hot-spots’ of carcinogenic hydro-carbons’ reports CNN.
365 Days later: the work of Greenpeace USA
Deepwater Horizon One Year On tells the story of the past 12 months, explaining Greenpeace USA’s work uncovering the truth on the worst oil spill in the nation’s history. The report investigates failures on the rig, impacts on local biodiversity, plus the filtering of scientific research by BP.
From the initial explosion to present day, the document highlights how the size and impact of the spill, plus fate of the oil and ecosystem, was downplayed by both the oil industry and the Obama administration:
‘At no stage did BP or the Coast Guard conduct accurate measurements of the amount of oil emanating from the broken riser pipe. This decision meant any assessment of the spill’s ultimate size had to be inferred and put BP in a position where it could challenge any final figure as an over-estimate, and thus seek to reduce the amount of any fine it would have to pay.'
Initial estimates stated that 1000 barrels, (42,000 gallons), of oil were pumping into the Gulf a day – but US government stats upped this to 5000 barrels, (210,000 gallons), daily by the end of April. This too was challenged by Oceangraphers at Florida State University, who claimed the leak could be up to five times bigger.
Deepwater Horizon One Year On also includes research from the University of Georgia which discovered ‘enormous undersea plumes’ formed from the oil, including one ‘10 miles long, three miles wide and up to 300 feet thick in places,’ challenging official stats as being underestimates.
A study from the multi-agency Flow Rate Technical Group, using high resolution video, is also included, which concluded that ‘the well initially spewed 62,000 barrels a day, easing to 53,000 as the well slowly depleted itself, for a grand total of 4.9 million barrels’ until the well was capped. Scarily they calculated that 800,000 barrels were captured at source, meaning 4.1 million barrels entered Gulf waters. But another estimate, published in the journal Science, pushed this final figure up to 4.4 million barrels (185 million gallons).
Funding and Finding the Facts
In the section Determining Impacts, the report describes how our ship Arctic Sunrise spent two months in the Gulf, acting as a base for researchers to study the impact on the area – and beyond. On board were some of the US scientists studying sponges, plankton, whales, ocean chemistry plus the organisms living in, and on, the sea floor. And, while research is still being concluded, anomalous observations point to oil and or dispersant chemicals notably contaminating the food chain.
Deepwater Horizon One Year On also found that the hydrocarbon-eating bacteria haven’t consumed as much oil as planned, with remnants sitting on the ocean floor: research vessel Cape Hatteras found oil 140 miles away from the original well.
University of Georgia researcher Samantha Joye found 2-inch thick oily sediment on the seabed in November 2010. And in January 2011, University of South Florida researchers actually saw an increase in sediment – increasing five fold from measurements in August 2010 – and spread for miles.
As of November 2010, official US government figures stated that 6,814 dead animals had been collected, including over 6,000 dead birds, almost 700 sea turtles, and 101 dolphins, porpoises and whales – but these figures for marine life mortality are also questioned:
'In March 2011, a paper in the journal Conservation Biology concluded that total mortality of dolphins and whales as a result of the spill may have been 50 times higher than the original estimate, and that as many as 5,050 may have been killed, out of sight.
Furthermore, impacts on Gulf wildlife may be continuing, almost twelve months after the accident. In March 2011, 39 dead sea turtles washed ashore on the islands and mainland of the Mississippi Sound, most of them the endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtle. During the first three months of the year, 139 cetaceans washed ashore dead along the Gulf coast, compared to an average of approximately 31 for the years 2002-9.'
Worryingly, all research has to be approved – which has led to a cover up:
'Some researchers who were contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to document the increased mortality and to collect samples for analysis complained that they were instructed in a letter from the agency that “no data or findings may be released, presented or discussed ... without prior approval” and that they had privately admonished by federal officials for ‘speaking out of turn” to the media.'
The National Commission
You’d think after such a devastating environmental catastrophe – which many believe to be the worst in US history – the US government would want to make sure such a disaster never happened again.
At first this was partly true: in May 2010 Obama formed the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, set up to find the cause of the accident, figure out how to prevent, and reduce the impact of, future spills from offshore drilling. And eight days later Interior Secretary Ken Salazar imposed a six month pause in deepwater drilling – although this only affected 33 sites, just 1% of the oil and gas industry in the area. The oil industry refused to meet the moratorium, and so it was overturned – but introduced again in June 2010.
The Commission’s findings were published in January 2011, and found that in the rush to extract oil as quickly as possible safety was neglected:
‘The Deepwater Horizon disaster exhibits the costs of a culture of complacency ...There are recurring themes of missed warning signals, failure to share information, and a general lack of appreciation for the risks involved ... But that complacency affected government as well as industry.’
In December 2010, a month before the Commission report was published, the US stopped offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico – until at least 2017, due to the US ‘experience with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.'
But, in October Salazar announced the moratorium, set to expire on November 30, would end one month early. This meant that for three months, the oil and gas industry didn’t need to abide to the new stricter recommendations of the Commissions report – released the following January.
While drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was put on hold, there were no limits on deep water drilling in the new frontier of the Arctic waters off Greenland, where the oil industry has been eagerly awaiting the results of exploratory drilling there.
Deepwater Horizon One Year On highlights how this new territory could be even more hazardous than the Gulf of Mexico in event of a spill, due to both the Arctic’s extreme climate, remote location and the industry’s complacency and lack of research.
Freezing temperatures, 10 to 30 foot waves and hurricane-strength winds would make finding slicks beyond challenging – and the remoteness of Arctic locations means reaction times to a disaster difficult and slow. Current computer models also can’t predict how arctic ice would react to a spill – or the effects on species like walruses, polar bears and others.
Despite the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe still unraveling in familiar waters, the oil industry’s thirst for liquid hydrocarbons is sending them into alien waters – still unresearched.
Reports of drills re-opening in the Gulf of Mexico as early as July this year have appeared in the UK media – while local communities remain shattered, businesses bankrupt, the environment devastated plus the corporate giant facing manslaughter charges for the deaths of 11 rig workers.
But for BP, it seems that life is just the price you pay for profit.
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