The damage from Deepwater Horizon that can’t be restored


The 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is back in the news again, thanks to this weekend’s release of the blockbuster Hollywood movie about the rig explosion. Once again, Americans are talking again about a story that had seemed to fade from the picture — even though it would be a huge mistake to anyone to forget the worst ecological disaster in American history. It will certainly be interesting to gauge the accuracy of the finished motion picture. According to some of the early reviews, Deepwater Horizon, the movie, portrays the heroism of the rig’s crew, trying to survive a in living hell against a backdrop of corporate greed and mismanagement that caused the disaster in the first place. I’ve read that the flurry of mistakes and cost-cutting measures from BP higher-ups that caused the disaster are simplified for the motion-picture audience; in fairness, it would probably require a 4- or 5-hour movie to catalogue all the things that the British oil giant did to maximize profits and minimize safety.

And of course, the night of the rig explosion — 11 people were killed in the blast — wasn’t the end of the Deepwater Horizon story. As chronicled in this blog — which began several months after the initial catastrophe — and elsewhere by activists and by some of the news media, the events of April 20, 2010, were just the beginning. Next came the 4 million-plus barrels of oil, the death and illnesses to creatures from majestic sea turtles to the Gulf’s beloved shrimp and other seafood, the illness of cleanup workers exposed to toxic fumes, and the oiling of beaches. Up and down the food chain, the impact is still felt.

That much was confirmed this week in a new and, arguably, timely report from academic researchers. Their work shows that some of the Gulf wetlands that were most heavily damaged by the BP spill are almost certainly never coming back:

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, finds the oil spill caused widespread erosion in the salt marshes along the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. And the researchers say there’s a chance these marshes might never completely grow back.  

Marshes “provide a variety of important services,” said lead study author Brian Silliman, a marine conservation biologist at Duke University. “They benefit humans, including acting as pollution filters, absorbing nutrients as they run off from the land before they get into the estuary, helping to suppress harmful algal blooms. They also act as breakwaters and buffer the shoreline from erosion.”  

They’re also important carbon sinks — in fact, research suggests that coastal wetlands may absorb several times more carbon per unit of area than tropical forests do. And they also provide habitat to a wide variety of animals that are staples of human fisheries, including shrimp, crabs and small fish.

Here’s the science of how marsh erosion speeds up:

The researchers found that marshes with low or moderate levels of oiling did not erode any faster than usual. But in places where oil covered at least 90 percent of the plant stems, erosion rates accelerated significantly. The study suggested that erosion in these places was more than three times higher than in marshes with no oil at all, and on average was about 1.4 meters per year higher than normal. These elevated erosion rates persisted for up to two years following the spill.  

The results suggest that marshes have a kind of threshold beyond which the effects of the oil begin to manifest themselves. And in the places that are hit the hardest, the effects can be significant. 

The loss of Louisiana wetlands is not a new phenomenon. For decades now, my native state has lost the equivalent of several football fields of marshes, most of it from man-made activities such as oil exploration and transport, as well as industrial pollution and runoff. That’s been a hard loss to take, since residents of New Orleans and other populated areas depend on these wetlands to protect our hometowns from tropical storms. The added damage caused by the BP spill is the last thing Louisiana needs. If you see Deepwater Horizon this weekend, remind yourself that the bigger story is just beginning.

Check out more from the Washington Post on the BP oil spill and wetlands damage in Louisiana:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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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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