Even with the 10-year anniversary of the catastrophe fast approaching, it’s easy to forget all about the tragic events that occurred at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, out in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast, on April 20, 2010. Indeed, BP and its friends in Big Oil have invested literally billions of dollars over the course of a decade in the hopes that you won’t remember the explosion that killed 11 workers or caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
Fortunately, a team of scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, or LUMCON, didn’t forget about the Deepwater Horizon. In 2017, these researchers did something that few people have done over these last nine-plus years — return to the site where more than 4 million barrels of crude oil spewed into the Gulf.
Two years after this research, these Louisiana scientists have revealed their findings — that the site of what was once a massive oil rig is now what they describe as an apocalyptic hellscape, where freakish, badly deformed and sluggish crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans had traveled to mate but were instead sickened by the toxic goo that envelops the site.
“Near the wreckage and wellhead, many of the animals characteristic of other areas of the deep Gulf of Mexico, including sea cucumbers, giant isopods, glass sponges and whip corals, were absent,” Craig McClain, the executive director of LUMCON who was the lead author of the report, told CNN. “What we observed was a homogenous wasteland, in great contrast to the rich heterogeneity of life seen in a healthy deep sea.”
The LUMCOM team used remote-operated vehicles equipped with cameras to explore a 1,600-foot area around the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon, comparing the results to footage that was captured immediately after the spill in 2010. The tragedy for marine life is that something about the oil-laden site is highly attractive to crustaceans, with the researchers finding them in numbers as much as eight times that of other sites.
Clifton Nunnally, a biological oceanographer with LUMCON, told Hakai Magazine that it’s possible that hydrocarbons from the oil spill somehow mimicked the pheromones that naturally attract the crabs and shrimp for mating, instead luring them into a toxic trap. Nunnally was even more stark than his colleague in describing the desolation of the site.
“Everywhere we looked, it was part carnage and part ghost town,” Nunnally told the magazine, describing a human boot at the BP site that reminded the team of the 11 lives that were lost that day. He added that the scientists “were floored by the absolute destruction that lay before us on the seafloor. The bottom was devastated. We had never seen anything like it in our lives.”
Nunnally explained to the magazine that despite the abundance of crabs and shrimp, the shellfish tended to have missing or deformed claws, were heavily infested with parasites, and did not display defensive behavior. The findings were troubling to the scientists not because humans tend to eat these particular marine animals — we don’t — but we do eat sea creatures that are higher up on the food chain and who might have consumed this tainted prey.
Something else disturbing that was noted by the LUMCON researchers is that while hydrocarbons from natural oil seeps — which frequently occur in seabeds — will quickly decay, the remains of the Deepwater Horizon spill continue to sit on the Gulf floor, decaying slowly. The scientists say all the available evidence is that the area around the destroyed rig will be contaminated for decades — a grim environmental toll that was created by a giant oil company’s negligence.
The reminder of the mess that BP left in the Gulf — one of America’s greatest natural resources — is especially timely for a couple of reasons. One is that the LUMCON findings were reported in the very same week that 64-year-old American Bob Dudley resigned after a nine-year stint as president of BP — earning widespread praise for his efforts to turnaround the UK-based oil giant after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The fact that Dudley could spend or pledge a whopping $62 billion to pay for damages from the Gulf spill — on top of a huge sum spent on public relations — and still be considered a turnaround genius is a tribute to the obscene profits that are still being made in the fossil fuel industry, as well as the arrogance of Big Oil.
Even worse is how little we’ve done to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Beginning during the presidency of Barack Obama and greatly expanding under Donald Trump, the U.S. government has only increased the pool of offshore tracts that are open for drilling in the Gulf (and even dreamed of expanding the practice to other places such as the Atlantic Ocean). Even worse, the Trump administration has undone many of the regulations enacted after Deepwater Horizon disaster aimed to prevent another rig blowout and to otherwise improve safety.
The necessary moves to make sure we don’t have another BP-sized disaster in the Gulf will have to wait on the next presidential election, if not longer. But we owe a debt of gratitude to the scientists of LUMCON for reminding us of the horrible, horrible risks if we continue to do nothing.