Apr 20 5:13 PM

Five years since the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster

After a gas explosion, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform burned for a day-and-a-half before sinking. That was only the start of an ongoing disaster.
U.S. Coast Guard, via Getty Images

Just a reminder: Today is not the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, today marks five years since the beginning of an ongoing disaster.

When the Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit — owned by Transocean and drilling for BP — was rocked by a methane gas explosion on the night of April 20, 2010, it had already been dogged by a series of gas “kicks,” a degradation of the wellhead, leaks from the blowout preventer and any number of questions from engineers and crew about shortcuts taken expediting the already weeks-behind-schedule drilling project. Sadly, none of that was seen as particularly out of the ordinary for a deep-water drilling project in the Gulf.

Of course, what happened next was.

The explosion started a fire that engulfed the massive platform in minutes. Eleven onboard died; another 16 were injured. After burning for nearly two days, the Deepwater Horizon disappeared under the waves.

That same day, the United States Coast Guard made it first reference to a spill — or more specifically to a leak, one that was big and ongoing. BP and some Coast Guard officials spent a couple of days downplaying the possible environmental impact of the event, but by April 24, the Coast Guard confirmed that the damaged wellhead was leaking and the spill was “serious.”

It took 87 days to cap the damaged well. During that time, and estimated 206 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf — over six times the size of the high-end estimates of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill — making it the worst anthropogenic environmental disaster in U.S. history.

But the oil is only part of the story.

During the leak phase of the disaster, the U.S. and BP dumped 1.8 million gallons of the oil dispersant Corexit into Gulf waters. Some of it was sprayed from the air, as was common, to break up slicks on top of the water, but a large proportion of the chemical cocktail was piped directly into the wellhead, at the source of the leak, roughly a mile below sea level — a method that had never been tested, was never deemed effective and never deemed safe.

Corexit, like many dispersants, breaks large slicks of oil into smaller droplets. It decreases shoreline accumulation — and so, the terrible pictures of tarred beaches and oils-soaked birds — but experts debate its value in a cleanup because the smaller droplets sink below the surface and are harder to collect.

And because Corexit is a proprietary product, there is no authoritative list of what exactly is in it. In the ensuing years, in what has been one extremely large and sporadically documented chemistry experiment, Corexit has been determined to be detrimental to marine life, and even more disturbing, research has said that the combination of crude oil and Corexit is more toxic than the oil alone.

The combination of Corexit and oil also seemed to wreak havoc with human’s exposed during the cleanup. Respiratory problems and skin ailments became common complaints among those given only the flimsiest protective gear while tasked with scooping up the tarred sand and cleaning the oil-stained flora and fauna.

There are estimates about how long it takes Corexit to degrade at the surface, but no one really has any idea about how it reacts in the extreme pressure, extreme cold and extreme darkness 5,000 feet under water.

Environmental groups tried during the first months of the crisis to stop the unregulated and unprecedented use of Corexit — or, at the least, to get Nalco, Corexit’s manufacturer, to divulge its components — but BP, Nalco and even the U.S. government brushed aside concerns. After a time, Nalco did admit that Corexit contained 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical associated with health problems, including liver and kidney damage, but the Environmental Protection Agency’s own studies on the dispersant’s ingredients were kept under lock and key because they might, it was said, divulge “confidential business information.”

BP insisted it had to use the dispersants because no one wanted to see the alternative: “waves of black oil washing into marshes and beaches.” Perhaps no one wanted to see that, but given what happened, it was BP (and it appears, the U.S. government) that made a point of making sure no one did. The Corexit might have spared BP and the government that issued the drilling permits the embarrassment of oil-covered beaches and birds, but it did not spare the Gulf, itself.

Numbers from a variety of state, federal and private resource management organizations, gathered at this five-year marker by Grist, show that 1,000 dolphins have been found dead since the spill. Add to that some 800,000 birds killed over that time. The pelican population is off by 12 percent, and oyster harvests are down 23 percent.

And there are the countless eyeless shrimp, lesion-covered snapper and mutated crabs.

It is estimated Gulf fisheries lost $173 million since the start of the spill — but that is, pardon the expression, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the tens of billions of dollars already spent on the cleanup.

And to all these numbers we should add “and counting.”

Five years on, there are still tar balls washing up on the beaches, still birds and marine life turning up dead or deformed, still communities suffering from the loss of business and a host of mysterious maladies. There is still approximately 26 million gallons of oil from this well resting uncomfortably on the seafloor — perhaps out of sight, but not, by any stretch, out of the ecosystem.

But it is maybe out of mind. There has been no significant federal legislation on offshore drilling in the five years since the spill, and the brief restrictions on new leases have mostly evaporated in ways the BP oil did not.

Since April 20, 2010, more than 1,500 new drilling permits have been issued for the Gulf.

Happy anniversary.


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