Just in time for the fifth anniversary of the worst oil spill in U.S. maritime history, BP has declared all’s well on the Gulf Coast: The oil has been mopped up and there’s been no lasting damage to birds, wildlife or fish.
At the same time that BP was releasing its five-years-later report, BP contractors were trying to clean up 25,000 pounds of oiled sand from a massive tar mat that slimed one of the fragile barrier islands south of New Orleans.
Toxicology experts at Louisiana State University confirmed it was the same oil that spewed from the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 men.
Here’s what BP doesn’t want you to know: Its crews had been on the scene of that massive cleanup for the three weeks leading up to the release of that report which claimed all cleanup operations had been long finished. That’s a serious truth gap. The British-owned oil giant continues to be far more concerned about its bottom line than repairing the damage it inflicted on the Gulf Coast.
Let’s look at the facts five years on.
Scientists have estimated that more than 800,000 birds died in the immediate aftermath of the spill — and we believe that’s a conservative number. Subsequent studies have recorded cellular, reproductive and developmental damage that could accumulate in birds for years to come.
Oil and dispersant chemicals have been found in the eggs of nesting white pelicans as far north as Minnesota. Dolphin deaths in Louisiana remain four times higher than average. High numbers of stillborn and premature dolphins have been recorded in the northern Gulf every spring since 2010.
A National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study reports unusual lung masses, adrenal gland problems and tooth loss among dolphins in Barataria Bay, one of the most heavily oiled areas.
Other studies track the decline in endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle nests since 2010. Commercial crabbers report drops in blue crab populations in multiple locations since the spill and oyster harvests in the northern Gulf were unusually low between 2011 and 2014. Scientists are studying how much of the declines are due to the spill and the response efforts, particularly the chemical compounds used to “clean up” the oil in the immediate aftermath of the spill.
As troubling as these findings are, there’s even more dangerous fallout from the oil spill. A 2012 study found that oiled marshes in storied Barataria Bay were eroding at double the rate of non-oiled marshes. That’s because the oil killed the marsh grasses and other vegetation on low-lying islands and shorelines. Scientists are seeing the same land loss in other coastal wetlands and barrier islands affected by the spill.
Before the spill, Cat Island — which lies southeast of New Orleans — was a lush, green, thriving rookery for brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills and other water birds. Today it is a sand spit with clumps of skeletal gray stalks from the dead mangrove trees that once held the island together.
In sharp contrast to BP’s claims of a recovered Gulf Coast, much of the erosion and land loss caused by the oil damage won’t be corrected in our lifetimes — if ever.
Here’s the problem. The Gulf Coast was imperiled well before the oil spill. Louisiana is losing the equivalent of a football field of land an hour — much of that land loss caused by the hundreds of miles of canals that oil and gas companies built through the wetlands for pipelines and transport. The BP oil spill has accelerated that land loss.
And what’s most insulting about BP’s claims: The oil is still out there. Scientific studies estimate that 10 million gallons of oil from the spill are buried on the floor of the Gulf, covered by sediment and silt. In October 2014, researchers discovered a 1,250-square-mile ring of oil on the Gulf floor — an area equivalent to the size of about 950 New York Central Parks.
It’s bad enough that all that goo is smothering delicate, translucent coral that lives on the Gulf bottom. Or that dangerous chemicals could be entering our food chain as fish eat the worms that have been ingesting contaminated sediment and dispersants.
But there’s another menace: The Gulf coughs up some of that oil in the form of tar mats and spits it into the fragile marshlands every time there’s a storm or other major disturbance churning below the Gulf’s surface.
So, what has BP done? Call in the lawyers and the PR-meisters. Their job is to argue, delay, appeal, stall and muddy the waters around the Clean Water Act penalties BP owes to the people of the Gulf.
Every one of these delays further endangers the wildlife, birds, fish, plant life and people struggling to recover from BP’s damage to the Gulf Coast.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans is in the process of deciding how much BP must pay for the mess it made. We hope he’s influenced by the fact that the company’s leaders are deliberately misleading the American public.
BP wants you to believe it’s a good corporate citizen. We think there’s a simple way for BP to demonstrate that: Pay for what it broke.
David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.