Deepwater Horizon Disaster One Year Later

A special Outdoor Life report on the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. On April 20, 2010, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, killing 11 rig workers. A huge fire raged across the platform, located some 42 miles south of Venice, Louisiana, in the Gulf of Mexico, and two days later it toppled over and disappeared into the deep Gulf waters. Initially, BP Oil said there was no oil leaking from the wellhead sunk 5,000 feet below the surface on the sea floor. Initially, they may have been correct. But, by April 24, underwater cameras employed by the U.S. Coast Guard recorded an estimated 1,000 gallons per day of crude oil shooting out of the wellhead and into the Gulf. By the time the well was capped in July, as much as 200 million gallons of crude oil may have shot up into the Gulf of Mexico, according to some estimates. The media descended on Southern Louisiana, and photographs and videos streamed out to the world: of the burning Horizon rig; of the sea-borne oil slicks; of the oiled marshes and dying, oil-coated birds. Armies of workers skimmed oil from the ocean's surface, while thousands of volunteers hurried to lay absorbent booms along barrier islands and the marshy coast line. It all very much had the feel of a war, of the "attacking" oil heading for the Louisiana coast. Media predictions called for doom, starting with the destruction of the Northern Gulf's fishery, as well as the devastation of the million-plus acres of coastal marshes that support so much of this region's fish and wildlife. Fishermen and hunters were distraught. Louisiana, after all, really is a "Sportsman's Paradise," as the state motto proclaims, and the southeastern coast is home to some of the world's best fishing and waterfowl hunting. Now, on the one year anniversary of this disaster, we ask: What was actually hurt and what was thankfully spared--and what could yet happen?
Big Losers Those who directly relied on water for their livelihoods were hurt and were hurt bad, including fishing boat charters. "My best months are May and June," says Ryan Lambert, who runs Cajun Fishing Adventures based out of Buras, Louisiana. "Last year, I was down 94 percent in my business." Last spring and summer, large sections of the Northern Gulf of Mexico were closed off to recreational and commercial fishing. All those closures have since been lifted, and there are no advisories against eating fish from the Northern Gulf. The Deepwater oil slicks are long gone, too. But people don't seem to realize this, says Lambert. He points to a recent survey of out-of-state people which found that 80 percent of them thought fish from southeastern Louisiana were unfit to eat. "It's just not true," says Lambert. "I'm eating the fish we catch all the time, and they taste fine. But that's the perception out there, that you can't eat the fish." Which likely explains why today, a year later, Lambert doesn't have half the reservations he'd normally have for May and June.
Missing Trout Lambert specializes in guiding anglers to speckled trout and redfish in the Buras, Venice, and Plaquemines areas of south Louisiana.Most winters, he notes, he and others catch of good number of speckled trout. But this last winter, he caught three the whole time. Now, in April, the speckles are biting once again. That the good news. The bad? "We're not seeing the juvenile speckled trout like we used to," Lambert says. "This spring, we've only caught two fish under 12 inches. That tells me there's a problem with the young." Charter captains many miles to the east and west of where Lambert does most of his fishing tell him they are hooking decent numbers of juvenile speckles. So he's worried that the oil might have killed off a whole year class of the trout in his angling locales. If that's the case, speckled trout fishing here may see a big drop off in the next few years.
Northern Gulf Questions Captain Devlin Roussel runs Reel Peace Charters, a deep-sea fishing operation based out of Venice, Louisiana. Like Lambert, Roussel says business hit the skids as the Deepwater Horizon oil spread out over the Gulf. "We had a complete shutdown," Roussel says. "The feds shut down the waters in the Gulf where we fish. But we started fishing again after the first of this year." So far, his fishing report's a mixed bag. "The tuna fish are back pretty strong," Roussel notes. "There were definitely wahoo around this winter, but not the numbers there should be. We'll see about billfish this summer."
His big concern is the swordfish. "We haven't seen many at all," he says. "Swordfish like to stay on the bottom during the day. Our great fear is, they stayed on the bottom [during the spill], got covered up with oil--and died." Roussel has charter reservations for this summer, but only a third of what he'd see in a normal year. "I think there's a lot of apprehension out there," Roussel adds. "I get an email at least once a week asking, If we catch fish, will they be safe to eat? Will they be covered in oil?"
Coastal Wetlands Tom Moorman is the director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited's Southern Region. During the spill, he headed up DU's Gulf Coast Response Team, and spend a good deal of time in southern Louisiana, monitoring the situation for DU. From a coastal wetlands perspective, says Moorman, the fear was that oil would coat marsh vegetation and kill off the root systems, allowing untold acres of coastal marsh to just wash away. Those marshes, of course, provide key habitats for the region's waterfowl and fish. "The numbers I've seen are between 3,000 acres and maybe as high as 6,000 acres of marsh were killed off as a result of the oil," says Moorman. "That's out of approximately 1.8 million acres of coastal marsh there." The photographs of oiled wetlands were very scary, he admits. But those images didn't reveal that the actual oil--when workers weren't able to stop it with booms or absorbent materials--was usually confined to a ten- to 30-foot wide ribbon fronting the water. There were exceptions. "Terrebonne Bay saw some areas that were pretty heavily oiled," he notes, and these spots could see some longer-term marsh losses. One definite plus was that coastal vegetation hard hit by oil in Barataria Bay was sprouting regrowth by late summer 2010. A Bullet Dodged? As the 2010 fall tropical storm season approached, Southern Louisiana held its collective breath. There were still millions of gallons of oil just offshore, and even one good-sized storm could push oil far back into the marshes. Fortunately, that storm never occurred.
"The state of Louisiana also did some really good things in response to the situation," says Moorman, "and one of them was, they did significant freshwater diversions into the marshes." Meanwhile, the Mississippi River was at a very high level, so above-normal amounts of river water were also heading south, through the marshes and into the Gulf. Together, all this additional water created a sort of hydrological "push" toward the Gulf of Mexico, and may well have stopped some oil from sliding into the marshes. "Had the river not been flowing so hard and had we not had those water diversions?" says Moorman. "And we then we got a big tropical storm? We'd probably be having a very different discussion today."
Waterfowl Hunting "Waterfowl hunting last season in coastal Louisiana, especially the southeast area, was actually better than it has been in a couple years," says Moorman. "The high river flow and all the freshwater diversions were really great for the habitat, and created lots of groceries for the ducks." In addition, the states just north of Louisiana were fairly dry from late summer into the fall, so a lot of migrating ducks and geese overflew these drier areas and dropped down into Louisiana's coastal marshes. Duck hunter numbers were right at about the five-year average, says Mike Carloss, a biologist with the Louisiana Department Wildlife and Fisheries. As far as the actual waterfowl harvest, he adds, "This was about the best in the most recent five years that I can remember." One concern was that waterfowlers hunting in the coastal marshes might come upon oil slicks or patches of oiled up marsh. That doesn't appear to have happened. "We actually established a hotline for hunters so they could report any oil pools and oiled up vegetation," says Carloss. "We didn't get any responses."
Fisheries At Risk, Too Yet, the question for the Gulf fishery remains: what is going to be the long term effect of 200 million gallons of oil injected into this environment? The Gulf Oil Spill is often compared to the Exxon Valdez spill of March 23, 1989, where the tanker ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound and an estimated 11 million gallons of oil poured out onto the sea. A huge difference between the two events, though, was that the Deepwell Horizon's oil rose up through the ocean. Writing some eight months after the Deepwater spill began, George F. Crozier, Executive Director of Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab, noted that, "Contrary to the cliche that 'oil and water don't mix,' some components of crude oil mix quite readily in water. In fact, many of the volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, xylene, etc. (collectively known as BTEX) are soluble, and a lot may not have reached the surface at all." All these compounds can be toxic. Oil also contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH's, suspected to be cancer-causing. The BTEX's and PAH's will "bio-accumulate," concentrating in organisms up the length of the food chain. At some point, these compounds could bio-accumulate in bait and game fish, especially in their internal organs (livers are the most likely reservoirs). There may be no human health concerns with the fish, now. But it it's possible that certain species could become tainted enough, at some point, that people might want to avoid eating them. People aside, what are the affects of BTEX's and PAH's on the fish themselves and the smaller organisms at the base of the Gulf's food chain? It may well take scientists decades before they are even close to answering these questions.
Sea Floor Oil Last December, marine scientist Dr. Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia and her colleagues made a series of submarine dives around the Deepwell Horizon site, collecting samples of the ocean bottom and taking photographs. They found large areas covered in thick oil residues. At a press conference this February where she announced her findings, Joye, "showed pictures of oil-choked bottom-dwelling creatures. They included dead crabs and brittle stars--starfish like critters that are normally bright orange and tightly wrapped around coral. These brittle stars were pale, loose and dead. She also saw tube worms so full of oil they suffocated," according to a story by Associated Press writer Seth Borenstein. This, "after Kenneth Feinberg, the government's oil compensation fund czar, said based on research he commissioned he figured the Gulf of Mexico would almost fully recover by 2012…" Feinberg and others had predicted that the oil would quickly degrade and break down. "I've been to the bottom. I've seen what it looks like with my own eyes. It's not going to be fine by 2012," Joye told The Associated Press. "You see what the bottom looks like, you have a different opinion."
What's Killing Gulf Dolphins? According to the Reuters news agency, so far this year, "153 bottle-nosed dolphin carcasses have washed up on Gulf coasts: 65 of those were infants: new born, stillborn or born prematurely, according to figures from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)." Moby Solangi, president of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi, noted that, given their ages, these young dolphins were conceived right around the time of the Deepwater catastrophe. "To determine the cause of death requires a necropsy, which Solangi can perform at the institute, as well as toxicological and other forms of analysis," Reuters reported. "But in February the government halted all external investigations into dolphin deaths and turned the matter over to NOAA, which is yet to release any findings." "It is frustrating to any scientist. Certainly we want to get results," Solangi said.
Other Problems All the work to save the coastal marshes and barrier islands from being overwhelmed by floating oil came with a hidden cost: Significant areas of submerged aquatic vegetation damaged by response vessels and oil response activities. As an April 2011 press release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained, "During the spill, the threat of oil reaching shorelines was real. Many response vessels across the Gulf were mobilized to place boom along shorelines and across smaller bays and estuaries in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The placement of these booms over sensitive, shallow seagrass habitats resulted in damage to these important nursery habitats." 
"The scars created by these boats damaged seagrass and removed sediment, which can kill plants and prevent them from growing back," says Sean Meehan, NOAA oceanographer. "Storm waves and currents can exacerbate the damage if we don't intervene." Recently, NOAA announced it will lead a Gulf seagrass restoration effort, with help from state agencies and the National Park Service. BP Oil will pay to implement these projects.
Damages Being Assessed Right now, NOAA is overseeing what is known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment or NRDA, coordinating that effort with numerous federal and state agencies. This NRDA will try to quantify damages done to public resources by the oil spill (environmental, social, and economic), and them identify restoration projects to remedy these damages. "There is no set time frame for the NRDA's completion," says Tim Zink, NOAA spokesperson. "It is safe to say that it will take several years." Currently, NOAA is working on the "Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement," a planning document which will guide much of the NRDA's future work. "Our initial round of public [comment] meetings on the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement is complete, but the period for comments remains open until May 18," Zink notes. Comments may be submitted at www.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov.
Money Talks…….. DU's Moorman thinks the final results of the NRDA will eventually be presented to BP in the form of a bill. "It will probably be in dollars, billions of them, and BP can pay it and be done with all of this," says Moorman. "Or, they can contest it in court, if they don't agree with the costs assessed. It could drag on for awhile." Even if BP accepts that bill, pays up and moves on, it won't be that easy for Gulf Coast residents to go forward with their lives. As Reuters reports, over a half-million people have claimed some level of compensation from a $20 billion fund BP set up at the insistence of the White House. "Many Gulf fishermen said they were waiting for full compensation from fund administrator Feinberg, a financial and psychological hardship among coastal residents who pride themselves on fierce independence," Reuters notes.
Says Lambert, "Not a single charter captain I have heard of has gotten any money from BP. We're just trying to hang tight and see what happens." "We were essentially out of work for nine months," says Roussel, who has also applied for compensation for his losses. "And we haven't had a lot of work since we got back. You said you'd make us whole, BP. Well, it's been a year--let's get going!"

SPECIAL REPORT: On the one year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we ask: What resources were hurt, what was thankfully spared--and what does the future hold?