An oil containment boom floating in the ocean

Aftermath of BP Oil Spill still sending ripples through Gulf Coast environment, economy four years later

Sometimes it’s hard to believe the disaster that destroyed BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform, killed 11 workers and dumped billions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico happened four years ago on April 20, 2010. Not because the after-effects seem so distant, but because the impacts of the spill are still ever-present, and continually bubbling to the surface.

A bird flies over the coast four year after the events of the BP Oil Spill
A bird flies over the coast four year after the events of the BP Oil Spill

Of course, it all depends on who’s telling the story. BP launched a slick ad campaign in both print and broadcast media, trumpeting the Gulf “recovery.” The spill has been cleaned up, and everyone is back to business, the ads would like us to believe.

In fact, just five days before the anniversary of the spill, BP issued an official news release declaring “Active Shoreline Cleanup Operations from Deepwater Horizon Accident End.” The company praised the work of its team to “protect and clean” the Gulf shoreline, including Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. It says it’s “honoring its commitment to the Gulf.” That sounds good until you think about the word “active.” BP notes it is done with “Active” shoreline cleanup.

Cleanup workers deploy oil containment booms
Cleanup workers deploy oil containment booms

An update from the U.S. Coast Guard released the same day as BP’s announcement provided a more somber view of things. “Deepwater Horizon Response is far from complete,” it reads. It has just changed gears into what the Coast Guard terms a “Middle Response” process. The Coast Guard operates a National Response Center (NRC) dedicated to addressing reports of oiling across the Gulf, and it is able to launch rapid-response teams. This includes having Oil Spill Removal Organizations on standby.

Those teams have been busy. Since June 2013, the Coast Guard reports its personnel have responded to 1,082 suspected Deepwater Horizon oiling reports and overseen the cleanup of more than 5,500 pounds of oily material.

An exclusive report from WKRG news in Mobile, Ala., provided footage from February where crews walking the beaches picked up tar balls every day along 32 miles of coastline. The oil is not just turning up on the beach side, either. Clean-up crews told the news agency “significant amounts” of oil wash up on the bay side of Fort Morgan on a daily basis as well.

The beach survey was directed by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which reported 200 instances of oiling during the four-week assessment. Workers removed nearly 400 pounds of tar. Phillip West, Marine Resource Manager in Orange Beach, Ala., told WKRG the amount of oil and tar balls still being found is “astounding.”

Alabama beaches were taken out of “active” response status last year, in July. Since that time, it’s largely been up to the public to report any tar balls or oil slicks to the Coast Guard’s NRC.

In addition to the visible impact of the oil spill, there are largely unseen consequences beneath the ocean’s surface. In March, a study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed BP Deepwater Horizon oil is negatively affecting numerous species of fish. In particular, tuna and amberjack are exhibiting heart defects that will probably limit their ability to catch food. NOAA says this has “grim implications” for the future of these species.

This is just the latest in a long line of warnings about the negative impact the massive oil spill had on sea life and surrounding ecosystems dependent on the Gulf of Mexico. Studies have reported unusual dolphin deaths and a flat-lined sea turtle population recovery. A report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) warned of possible decreases in fish and wildlife populations as a result of the deaths of egg and larval organisms at the time of the spill, which could translate to cascading effects on the food chain. The NWF notes it was four years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster that the herring population in Prince William Sound, Alaska, collapsed, and the ecosystem there has still not recovered even 20 years later.

Barriers afloat while people kayak in the distanceThe repercussions of the BP Oil Spill are not just being felt throughout the environment and ecosystem. A significant lingering impact is still felt throughout the Gulf Coast economy. The oil spill negatively affected commercial and recreational fishing and their supporting industries, tourism revenues, and property values. This created a snowball effect felt by all types of businesses in the region.

Victims who suffered economic losses as a result of the spill hoped to find relief in the courtroom. Initially, it seemed everyone was on the same page. Lawyers from BP and the Plaintiffs Steering Committee (PSC) worked together to craft a settlement agreement fairly quickly, with both saying the ultimate goal was to get relief to victims as soon as possible. The uncapped settlement was proposed on March 2, 2012, and U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier granted preliminary approval on May 2, 2012.

A vital part of that agreement established a formula for honoring oil spill claims and was designed to expedite payments given the massive scope of the disaster and the sheer number of businesses and individuals it harmed. BP acknowledged that payment to “false positives” would be an “inevitable” symptom of the agreement but has since asked the courts to make companies prove their losses can be traced to the spill.

BP originally estimated it would pay $7.8 billion to resolve all the outstanding claims, but it became clear within one week of the settlement agreement that costs would exceed BP’s projections. At that point, the oil giant began to cry “foul” and started efforts to undo the settlement it had itself helped craft and approve.

Tarballs found on the beach, four years after the BP Oil Spill
Tarballs found on the beach, four years after the BP Oil Spill

BP and its lawyers have been trying to backpedal on the settlement agreement, arguing that oil spill relief money is falling into undeserving hands. BP sued oil spill fund administrator Patrick Juneau and Judge Barbier in an effort to halt claims payments, asserting that payments are being made on exaggerated and fictitious claims.

In March, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the terms of the settlement agreement. The Court ruled businesses seeking compensation for losses caused by BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill do not have to prove they were directly harmed by the disaster to collect payments. In its ruling, the 5th Circuit panel wrote that the settlement agreement’s language was in line with U.S. court rules governing class action lawsuit settlements.

While BP continues to spend millions of dollars on advertisements insisting the Gulf Coast has recovered, this week, residents of the affected areas gathered to remind the public they are still struggling. There were three events in the region, in Biloxi, Miss.; New Orleans; and St. Petersburg, Fla., organized by the Gulf Restoration Network.

Roberta Avila, Executive Director of the Steps Coalition, told the Mississippi Press, “We are standing here today to remind the nation that Gulf residents are still struggling with the environmental and economic consequences of the BP disaster.”

Washington Post
U.S. Coast Guard
National Wildlife Federation
Mississippi Press

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