Why the BP oil spill still matters after 9 years


There wasn’t much fanfare in April when the 9th anniversary of the world’s largest-ever oil spill — the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that dumped more than 4 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico — came and went. Usually a 9th anniversary isn’t a big deal, after all.

But the lack of attention might cause some folks to think the effects of America’s worst environmental disaster have long passed. To the contrary, the delayed health impacts of exposure not just to the spilled oil but millions of gallons of a toxic clean-up chemical — both for human beings and for the Gulf’s splendid marine life — are still very much in play.

The BP fight is hardly over for Gulf residents like Blaine McGill, a former firefighter from coastal Mississippi who was in good health when he took an oil spill cleanup job not long after the April 20, 2010 incident, and who three years later staggered to a pulmonologist near death from severe asthma, chronic bronchitis and chronic sinusitis. McGill is one of 140 cleanup workers who is still suing BP over their illnesses, saying the oil giant and its contractors were grossly negligent in sending them into the spill without proper protective gear.

The ailing workers aren’t the lingering aftereffects from the BP nightmare that continue to haunt the Gulf. Since February of this year, coastal authorities have found at least 261 stranded bottlenose dolphins — most of them dead — in the Gulf. Some of the dolphins’ problems may be due to a surge in fresh water from the record flooding along the Mississippi River (made worse by climate change, another disaster caused by fossil fuels) but scientists have also been finding elevated rates of lung problems, birth defects and other health problems in dolphins consistently since the 2010 spill.

I started this blog in that hectic summer of 2010, as it became clear that my beloved Gulf, my home and native state of Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast were all in for the fight of their lives. For better or worse, nothing in the last nine-plus years has changed my opinion that the pursuit of justice for the Gulf Coast remain an ongoing fight.

In 2019, the biggest frustration is that thousands of workers like McGill who’ve become sick – seriously ill, in many cases – haven’t received a dime toward their mounting medical bills, either because their claims have still not been paid or because their symptoms didn’t surface until after the original 2012 settlement and they are now waiting for a new day in court.

“I did not spend decades defending my country and our institutions of democracy only to come home and watch a foreign-owned company spray chemicals on our workers and not be held accountable,” Gen. Russel Honore, who led New Orleans’ recovery effort from Hurricane Katrina, said last year. “We spend billions of dollars defending people in places like Syria from chemical weapons but allow British Petroleum and a handful of lawyers to hijack our justice system. It is un-American for a person who was knowingly injured by a big corporation which was found to be grossly negligent to be denied their day in court while the lawyers make off with hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Honore has been working closely with Jonathan Henderson, a longtime environmental activist in New Orleans who’s been involved with the Deepwater Horizon disaster since Day One and who has turned his attention in recent years to the plight of the workers. Last November, Henderson tried to present BP executives with a lengthy petition urging speedier action on the unpaid medical claims. That petition has since grown to more than 100,000 names.

“It’s eight years later, and now we’re seeing an uptick in diagnoses [of chronic conditions],” Henderson told The Louisiana Weekly. “A lot of people ended up being excluded [from the settlement] because they didn’t file their claim in time, but many didn’t get diagnosed before April 2012…“That’s where we are today, and we still have an unknown number of cases out there.”

I also plan to stay on this story — for two big reasons. The first is that justice for these workers, and for others who’ve been harmed by BP’s gross negligence, is long overdue. The second is we need to understand the lasting impact of what a spill like Deepwater Horizon does to a community like Louisiana and its Gulf Coast neighbors, so we can do everything in our power to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.

Unfortunately, government policy has been moving in the complete opposite direction. Just last month, President Trump’s Interior secretary, David Bernhardt, announced a major rollback of some of the environmental and safety regulations that were launched by the Obama administration in the years immediately following the spill. The new rules would loosen real-time monitoring of offshore drilling operations.

Bernhardt — speaking in Louisiana, no less — called the rule change an elimination of “unnecessary regulatory burdens while maintaining safety and environmental protection offshore.” It was just the latest piece of a policy that has been designed to expand both the regions of the United States as well as the number of acres where offshore drilling can take place.

If Team Trump had its way, the Gulf would be awash in new oil rigs that would not only be capable of producing another Deepwater Horizon-sized spill but almost guaranteed – given the lack of improved safety features – to produce a disaster on more or less the same scale. That’s on top of doubling down on increased fossil fuel production at a time when the future of the planet depends upon reducing carbon pollution.

That’s also a gross disservice to good people like Blaine McGill – people who’ve worked hard their whole life and who are entitled to clean air, clean water, and to preserving the beauty and the long-term Gulf of Mexico which is what attracted so many folks to this region in the first place. Next year, on the 10th anniversary, the media will probably pay a little more attention to what’s happened in the wake of Deepwater Horizon. Here’s hoping there’ll be a little more justice by then.  

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

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