Status of the Oil Spill and Cleanup

Last updated February 5, 2013

At 10 pm on April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig southeast of the Louisiana coast killed eleven crewmembers and caused the largest marine oil spill in United States’ history. On Thursday, July 15 the ruptured oil well was capped, and on Day 109, August 6, authorities announced that the well had been successfully plugged with mud and cement, finally stopping the leak. Nevertheless, by the latest estimate, 205.8 million gallons (4.9 million barrels, at 42 gallons per barrel) of crude from the undersea reservoir was leaked into the ocean nearly a mile below sea level. Economically, the spill has severely impacted the lifestyle of innumerable Gulf Coast inhabitants – from fishermen, to oil rig operators, to restauranteurs and others dependent upon the tourist industry. Ecologically, the Gulf’s marine life continues to be under threat from the environmental impacts caused by the oil and, of increasing concern, the millions of gallons of detergent-like dispersants intended to assist the clean-up. Although these dispersants removed the visible oil from the water surface, a load of toxic heavy metals (including arsenic) did not magically disappear — it sank into the sediment at the ocean floor.

Clean-up efforts for the affected areas included one of the largest groups of people to ever face such a task. Over 17,500 National Guard troops were deployed from Gulf Coast states and more than 48,200 personnel and 9,700 vessels worked to protect the nearby shorelines. People who customarily fished and shrimped the area used their ships to assist clean-up efforts on the water. Floating containment boom lined the beaches to try to keep the oil offshore.

Of the many problems resulting from the oil spill, few are more obvious than the health of the native wildlife in the Gulf. At this point, how much wildlife has been affected, and to what degree, are uncertain. Efforts to assist the larger species included capturing and cleaning the birds and turtles found in the oil slick. Many others of these animals died from the toxic effects of the oil and still more perished in controlled burns.

According to The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) on December 30, 2010, 113 miles of Louisiana coastline were still under active cleanup, with another 55 miles awaiting approval to start the cleanup process. Seventy-two miles of coastline are now considered "cleaned." Most of the marshes still have a "bathtub ring" of oil, but officials decided that cleanup activities would do more damage than the oil itself, so further cleanup has been suspended. As of December 23, there were still 6,170 workers and 260 vessels participating in the cleanup with key target dates of February when migratory birds return and of course the local tourist season. Said one official, "We know we're not done. We're still working."

In January 2012, preparations for the federal court proceedings revealed emailed conversations just before the disaster suggesting that BP knew that the potential for a catastrophic oil spill was high, and that they took steps to prevent sharing predicted flow rates with outsiders. “Difficult discussions” were apparently also ongoing with the U.S. Coast Guard. In March 2012, BP agreed to settle lawsuits, totalling an estimated $7.8 billion, brought by more than 100,000 Gulf Coast fishermen, sickened cleanup workers, and others harmed by the disaster. [The Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 resulted in a similar settlement totalling only $1 billion, equivalent to $1.8 billion in today’s dollars.] BP has already paid out billions in cleanup costs and compensation to victims, and U.S. government claims were not included in the totals. In May 2012, a former BP engineer was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice by deleting hundreds of text messages from his phone related to the flow rate; his case is still pending. In November 2012, BP announced that it would plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of Congress and other charges, and pay a record $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve the case. In January 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Transocean Deepwater Inc., the company that operated the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig for BP, agreed to pay $1.4 billion in civil and criminal penalties for the spill, much of which for violations of the Clean Water Act. Both BP and Transocean are still facing further financial liability for the spill.In March 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the RESTORE (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States) Act, diverting much of the fines and penalties associated with the oil spill to restoration activities in the Gulf states, including scientific research. The National Academy of Sciences received $150 million from the payout to help fund an independent, 30-year Gulf Coast research program.

Although the oil-covered birds and turtles received most of the attention in the media, far more species of marine invertebrates and marine plants also faced the disaster. These organisms play vital roles in the marine food web and ecological stability of the area. Among those particularly vulnerable to the oil spill are clams and oysters that filter seawater for food, coral colonies that require clean, clear water to survive, and the various plants (algae and seagrasses) that provide a foundation for the many levels of the food web. None of these organisms, and most of the other 15,000 species of animals and plants now living in the Gulf of Mexico,[1] can be cleaned in the ways applied to the Brown Pelicans on the Gulf Coast. Even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, these organisms faced many human-caused problems, including run-off fertilizer from farming and golf courses, pollution, and human waste, and other damages caused by the infrastructure of the energy industry (read more...).

In April 2012, a panel of experts convened at the 17th Annual Tulane Environmental Law Summmit presented the continuing impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Shrimp with no eyes and fish with cancerous tumors were documented — animals born long after the Gulf was declared “safe” for fishing. Declines in stock of many commercial species are expected, as occurred following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The chronic effects of the disaster are yet to be fully determined.

For more updates on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, visit the following news websites:

[1] “Gulf of Mexico: Origin, Waters, and Biota, Volume 1 – Biodiversity, edited by D. L. Felder and D. K. Camp, Texas A&M Press, 2009

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