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Five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 employees and dumping as much as 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the region and its inhabitants are still scarred.
More than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the six months after the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The massive cleanup efforts helped, but scientists are still struggling to understand the spill’s long-term impact on one of the most productive ecosystems in the country.
Some communities, like the Pointe-au-Chien tribe in southern Louisiana, don’t have to wait for research to tell them what they already know: Their way of life is quickly disappearing.
The Native American community, tucked deep in the wetlands of southern Louisiana, has long depended on the marine life in Gulf waters for both their food and their livelihoods.
Donald Dardar, a commercial fisherman, and his wife Theresa have been living off the water so long that they can’t imagine any other way of life. But five years after the BP oil spill, they say the fish have so dwindled in numbers that some of their neighbors have turned to church charity in order to survive.
“They’re fishermen and they couldn’t fish,” Theresa Dardar said. “It caused a lot of anger in the community.”
But that’s not their only concern. Since the BP spill, the Dardars say they've been catching deformed fish. Because of that, Theresa Dardar stopped shrimping altogether – in a region where more shrimp are caught than anywhere else in the country.
“I quit shrimping with him because I wasn't eating it,” she said. “I wasn’t going to put something on the market that I wasn't eating.”
Both federal and state governments have said Gulf seafood is safe to eat, but the federal government has documented severe illness in other marine animals, such as dolphins.
The Dardars say it isn't only their catch that's disappearing, but their land too.
Even before Deepwater Horizon, Louisiana was already losing its wetlands at a rate of a football field an hour, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The Dardars say that since the oil spill, that process has sped up. The BP damage was the last thing their community needed. At a recent town meeting, they say parish and state officials told them the erosion of the marshlands is happening so quickly, their entire community would likely be underwater in 50 years.
In speeches and press releases, BP officials say that the direst predictions about the oil spill’s impact haven’t come true. The company declined America Tonight’s request for a sit-down interview, but it recently released a report stating that there hasn’t been any significant long-term impact on marine life in the Gulf.
Bethany Carl Kraft, director of the Gulf Restoration Program at the environmental group Ocean Conservancy, says the report is great public relations material, but that the science begs to differ. Many studies, she says, have already found devastating effects on the land and wildlife. But the true extent of the damage may not become clear for years.
“BP's saying after five years ‘mission accomplished.’ It's incredibly premature,” she said. “This is a big ecosystem; it's complex. Changes happen over time. You've got to be really diligent about tracking and understanding what those long term impacts could be, and ultimately will be.”
For the Pointe-au-Chien, it’s as much about culture as ecology. On what remains of the marshlands, crosses mark tribal burial grounds, silent witnesses as the landscape – and way of life that accompanies it – slowly slips away.