The Recurring Re-Oiling of Horn Island: A Model of BP’s “Disaster on the Installment Plan”


More than 16 months after BP’s Macondo Well began spewing 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, it still reeks of oil on Horn Island – a long narrow strip of undeveloped land just off the Mississippi coast. You can smell the oil, and you can see it, too. Fresh, gooey tar mats and tar balls litter the sugar-white sand beaches that were once a favorite boating destination for Gulf Coast residents.

Ironically, Horn Island is part of the federally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore, an area billed as offering recreational opportunities and preserving natural and historic resources. Not so much anymore. The barrier island “gem” once served as a refuge for alligators, pelicans, ospreys, herons and other migratory birds – a little slice of heaven that inspired Ocean Springs, Mississippi, artist Walter Anderson to spend nearly 20 years painting the island’s idyllic landscapes.

I wonder what the legendary artist would think if he could see Horn Island today. My guess is he’d be rocked by the same emotional rollercoaster that has become a daily reality for many down here on the Gulf Coast – a volatile combination of disgust, anger and profound sadness.

On Sept. 20 – just one day after Auburn University released a new study indicating that oil from last year’s spill isn’t degrading on the seafloor – a member of our research team took a sampling tour out to Horn to keep an eye on one of BP’s Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique (SCAT) crews that was surveying the island. Strongbear, a Native American who serves as the managing environmental technician for Boston Chemical Data Corporation, witnessed the early stages of what I refer to as BP’s “disaster on the installment plan.” We got the mother lode last summer, but tragically, there’s much more on the way.

Consider this from a Sept. 20 Associated Press report:

The [Auburn University] study concluded that mats of oil – not weathered tar, which is harder and contains fewer hydrocarbons – are still submerged on the seabed and could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems.

Since the enormous amount of oil that BP sunk to the Gulf floor with the subsea application of toxic dispersants isn’t breaking down, many experts anticipate pervasive re-oilings of barrier islands and coastal beaches for months on end, even years. The waves of new contamination will roll in with each passing storm – most recently T.S. Lee (see link below to my previous post). And tragically, Horn Island is just one of the many areas of the Gulf Coast the installment plan will re-oil and recontaminate, over and over again.

According to Strongbear, the once white-sand beaches of Horn Island are covered in wide swaths of giant tar balls and gooey tar mats. “It’s a mess,” says Strongbear. “Some of the tar balls are the size of watermelons. When you break them open, you get a very strong smell of oil.”

The photos below were taken by Strongbear on Sept. 20 in the vicinity of GPS coordinates N 30 14.306; W 88 41.855.

More from the AP piece:

Auburn University experts who studied tar samples at the request of coastal leaders said the latest wave of gooey orbs and chunks appeared relatively fresh, smelled strongly and were hardly changed chemically from the weathered oil that collected on Gulf beaches during the spill.

The most disturbing fact about all of this is that the oil coming ashore 16 months after this disaster began is chemically unchanged from the fresh oil we saw last summer. That means it contains much higher concentrations of toxic petroleum hydrocarbons than anybody expected at this stage of the game. Not surprisingly, BP has contended that the submerged oil has been significantly weathered and therefore largely depleted of its original toxicity. Well, not according to the Auburn study:

“The data question the validity of the widely held belief that submerged oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident is substantially weathered and thus depleted of most polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”

Obviously, the higher-than-expected toxicity levels will have an ongoing adverse impact on marine life, particularly bottom dwellers like oysters and crabs. To make matters worse, according to Strongbear, Horn Island is surrounded by masses of oil matted together with sargassum, a brown seaweed. Sargassum, known as “gulfweed” or “sea holly,” plays a major role in providing food and shelter for a wide range of marine life, including sea turtles, migratory birds and economically crucial species like tuna, wahoo and billfish.

Read my previous post on the bombshell Auburn University study and what it means:

Read the full AP report here:

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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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