4 takeaways from a grim 4th anniversary of the BP spill


Over this Easter weekend, I had a chance to absorb quite a bit of coverage of what’s happened in the Gulf of Mexico in the four years since BP’s massive Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. I had a couple of thoughts. One was that with the passage of time, the news coverage of the BP anniversary has actually seemed to increase over last year. It’s good that the news media — especially given all the cutbacks in journalism these days — is paying such close attention to the issue. On the other hand, the amount of coverage also speaks to the seriousness of the problem. I suspect one reason that so many articles were published this weekend is that reporters are genuinely surprised and dismayed at both the extent of the environmental damage and at the lingering health impacts.

Here are some important takeaways as we begin the fifth year of dealing with the mess that BP created:

1. BP has gotten off way too easy. It’s true that the British oil giants has already paid record economic penalties for its wanton negligence, but let’s also not forget that this is a firm that continues to make tens of billions of dollars in profits every year. Meanwhile, as described here on the blog last week, the government has allowed BP back into the oil business in the Gulf without any requirements to upgrade the blowout preventers or take other steps that might prevent a future calamity. Now, the company has already received permission to bid on new leases. Reports Eco-Watch:

BP’s critics say this was not just a run of bad luck, but the result of an ingrained corporate culture which routinely put profits above safety. In an interview, Tyson Slocum of the public interest group Public Citizen said: “If ordinary people are found guilty in three felony cases, they will be imprisoned—suspension from contracts is a kind of corporate imprisonment.” However, under intense pressure from BP, which filed a lawsuit challenging the contract ban, and the British government, which filed a brief in the case criticizing the U.S. for its action, the company was just granted a get out of jail free card by the Obama administration. 

2.  The average American citizen doesn’t understand the full extent of the ecological damage that persists to this day — especially at critical wetlands or on barrier islands that were once Louisiana’s defense against tropical storms but have been battered by BP’s oil. This weekend, NOLA.com reported that a team of scientists literally gasped when they saw what has become of Cat Island in Baratria Bay:

 The bones of black mangrove stumps are all that remain of what was a thriving bird rookery here in Plaquemines Parish Four years ago, footage of oiled brown pelicans and the thousands of shorebirds nesting here went around the world in the aftermath of the 200 million gallons of thick crude that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Today the only green thing on the beach is a glass bottle. There are no pelicans, no mangroves, and worse, much of Cat Island itself is washing away. It and most of the barrier islands and marsh in Barataria Bay are steadily degrading, losing their battles with coastal erosion and subsidence faster than ever. They took blows from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustave, and Ike. But the oil from the spill is rapidly accelerating their demise.

3. The BP spill hasn’t just affected the physical health of Gulf Coast residents more profoundly than people realize, but it’s also taken a toll on the region’s mental health:

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences began interviewing tens of thousands of people who played a role in the spill response for a long-term study in 2010. Preliminary observations from initial health exams found an approximately 30 percent increase in anxiety and depression among cleanup workers. Many workers also say they’ve experienced physical symptoms, such as respiratory problems, skin rashes and neurological issues.

4. It’s going to take years to fully gauge the spill’s impact on marine life:

 Muth said scientists likely won’t know the effects of the compounds for years, but in higher concentrations, the VOCs can lead to reproductive issues and possibly mortality in wildlife.The NWF released a report this month that documented how the spill was still affecting Gulf wildlife, including dolphins, sea turtles, bluefin tuna and sea birds, a report BP disputed. But NWF scientists made clear that much of the research on the spill’s effects hasn’t yet been published due to the ongoing trials related to the spill, making accurate documentation of the spill’s effects difficult.

The anniversary of the spill also means that I’m approaching the four-year mark of writing this blog. Nothing would have made me happier than to move onto other issues. But the effect of the BP spill is a story that is not going away — not in the coming year and unfortunately probably not in the years after that. If we do not remember our recent past, and do not scrupulously monitor all the mistakes that caused the spill in 2010 and all the negative outcomes that have occurred since then, it is more likely that it will happen yet again. And that is the one story that I am determined not to write, not in 2014 and hopefully not in my lifetime.

Read more from Eco-Watch about BP’s free pass from the feds: http://ecowatch.com/2014/04/20/epa-bp-anniversary-deepwater-horizon-oil-spill/

You may also be interested in my April 17 blog post about the failure of the feds to address problems with blowout regulators: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/4-years-later-obama-and-the-feds-risk-another-bp-sized-catastrophe/

Check out the NOLA.com report on environmental harm to Baratria Bay: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2014/04/bp_oil_spill_four_years_later.html

See the Advocate article on the physical and mental health impacts on clean-up workers: http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/8950601-171/4-years-after-spill-questions

Here’s more from Think Progress on the full environmental impacts: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/04/20/3428269/bp-oil-spill-four-year-anniversary/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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