Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sending some 750 million liters of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly three months, it’s still difficult to say if the disaster ever had an endpoint.
From the vantage point of New Orleans, which became ground zero for the response to the spill, there’s evidence that much of the damage from the worst oil disaster in US history lingers on.
“Whenever we hear that oil spills will be less bad than we think, the Deepwater Horizon disaster shows how they can turn out,” says Bellona President Frederic Hauge, who observed the early days of the catastrophe from a helicopter over the Gulf. “Today we see a clear picture of how big oil is arrayed against the interests of everyday people. BP may have legally paid for what its done, but morally and ethically it has not.”
On the morning of April 20, 2010, workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon, a BP-operated deep sea drilling rig, were sealing an exploratory oil well 1,220 meters beneath the gulf. While they did so, a pocket of flammable gas travelling at nearly the speed of sound shot up the drill pipe, causing it to buckle. An emergency valve, called a blowout preventer, designed to cap the well in the event of such a kick, failed. When the gas reached the rig, it triggered an explosion, killing 11 of the crew and sinking the rig.
It would be 87 days before BP, which was operating the Deepwater Horizon, could bring the gusher under control. Several attempts to plug the well failed. A small air force took to the skies to coat the slick with chemicals meant to break it up and sink it to the sea floor. Other pockets of oil were set ablaze in flames visible from outer space.
By the time it was over, more than 2,000 kilometers of coast would be fouled in oil and marine life would be devastated. Thousands were put out of work in fisheries, tourism and energy. In the end, it would prove to be 12 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the previous record holder.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster signaled the risks of drilling for oil in one of the most culturally significant, ecologically diverse places in the world. But ten years and $69 billion in cleanup efforts later, many of the impacts of the catastrophe are still unfolding.
Take, for instance, the fish – which researchers at the University of South Florida say are still contaminated with hydrocarbons. Take the size of the spill itself, which a recent study has found to be far more extensive than initially thought, reaching as far as the southernmost tip of Florida.
Or take the opinion of a US government commission, which concluded that another such spill is largely inevitable –despite a decade’s worth of attempts to prevent just that.
Take, too, the continuing impact the spill had on human health. According to a government health study published seven years after the spill, tens of thousands of workers who first responded to the study are still wrestling with respiratory illnesses brought on by Corexit, the chemical used to disperse the spill. And take that many of those who were affected by that chemical – mostly lower-income fisherman – are still ill, or have gone on to die.
The more time that passes, the worse the spill seems to become, begging the question – could something like this happen again?
“Of course it could happen again, and I think one of the things of most concern is that our ability to control a spill is pretty much the same as it was 10 years prior,” says Frances Beinecke, who sat on the independent government commission that reviewed the failures leading up to the blowout.
Beineke and the six other members of that commission, which was formed under the Obama administration, have now told the New York Times that their recommendations haven’t been taken seriously, and that the US is only marginally more prepared than it was ten years ago, to cope with a spill of the Deepwater Horizon’s magnitude. As oil drilling moves farther offshore and deeper at sea, they say, the risk only increases.
“Disasters like oil spills will happen again because this is an extremely high-risk operation, particularly when you’re talking about drilling for oil over a mile of water and then a couple miles down under the sea floor,” Frances Ulmer, another member of the commission, told the Guardian. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong.”
Trump-era safety rollbacks
Some 17 percent of the oil produced in the United States comes from the Gulf of Mexico. Over 1,800 platforms are connected to refineries along the shore through more than 41,000 kilometers of pipelines. Leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused oil prices to plummet, Gulf production continued to be remarkably robust.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the US interior department restructured in a bid to allow a new division of the agency, the bureau of safety and environmental enforcement, or BSEE, to focus on safety. The move was meant to separate safety regulators from government officials who might be more motivated by the money coming in from taxes on drilling.
Crucially, the Obama administration also beefed up safety rules for the offshore oil industry, including checks on blowout preventers like the one that failed on the Deepwater Horizon.
But those rules have been weakened under the Trump administration. In 2019, the administration introduced numerous rollbacks to Obama-era rules at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s trade group – including independent certification of blowout preventers and bi-weekly tests.
Checks by the BSEE have been reduced as well. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy institute, the number of safety inspections the agency has conducted on rigs, platforms, pipelines, and other facilities during the last three years of the Trump administration decreased by 13 percent. The same study showed that enforcement actions against offshore drillers had fallen by 38 percent.
Meanwhile, offshore drilling is only going deeper and getting more dangerous. The Deepwater Horizon reached a depth of 1,300 meters. Now, studies show that more than half of the oil produced in the Gulf is coming from wells even deeper than that. One Chevron-operated well, called “Blind Faith,” reaches more than two kilometers to the sea floor.
All of this despite a 2013 study, which found that for every 100 feet (or 30.48 meters) an oil well’s depth increases, documented incidents like spills or crew injuries increase by 8.5 percent.
Such accidents have been on an upswing under the Trump administration. Between 2018 and 2019, the amount of oil spilled per barrel on America’s outer continental shelf has increased six fold over the previous two years, the same report from the Center for American Progress says.
Other smaller-scale incidents that don’t make headlines are frequent in the gulf. Between 2007 and 2018 there were an average 115 fires and explosions in federal waters annually – about one every three days – according to government data. There were also nearly 50 fatalities over that time.
Leaks are a constant state of affairs. One oil well off the southeastern coast of Louisiana, owned by Taylor Energy, has been leaking since 2004, spilling between 300 and 700 barrels per day. The well’s reserves could keep it leaking for the next 100 years if it isn’t capped, meaning it will one day eclipse the Deepwater Horizon spill in terms of volume.
Fighting spills puts people at risk
That a new spill will one day meet gulf shores has become and article of faith. Unfortunately, efforts to control a new slick will likely look much as they did after the Deepwater Horizon, with armadas of local fishermen once again mustered onto the front lines and toiling in a haze of chemicals.
That’s because little has been done to avert the kind of public health crisis the Deepwater Horizon’s cleanup left in its wake. As the oil eventually receded, many who fought to clean it up became seriously ill. Many of them have died of respiratory complications, including cancer.
In the days following the blowout, some 47,000 people, mostly newly jobless fisherman, were contracted by BP to pilot their boats into the slick pulling skimmers. Others worked in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to siphon oil off the beaches.
Almost immediately, thousands of them broke out in rashes. They began to cough up blood and developed wheezes. Some were plagued with migraines. Many complained of burning eyes and memory loss. Still others were struggled with new heart aliments, kidney problems, liver damage, and discharge from their ears. Some experienced cognitive decline and anxiety attacks.
What all of them had in common is their exposure to Corexit, an oil dispersant that contains an array of toxic chemicals, but which BP assured the workers was as safe to use as dishwashing liquid. From the first days of the spill through the eventual capping of the well that following July, BP oversaw the dumping of 7 million liters of the dispersant from airplanes flown over the Gulf.
Ten years later, controversy still rages about the wisdom of carpet-bombing the Gulf with these chemicals, and documents released since reveal that government scientists expressed concern at the time about the health consequences of mixing such large quantities of dispersants with the millions of barrels of sweet crude.
Oil and dispersants are a toxic stew. When the two are combined, they unleash heavy metals and hydrocarbons like benzene, hexane, and toluene, which are known carcinogens. Dispersants like Corexit contain solvents meant to break oil down into tiny droplets that sink. But when ocean water evaporates, so do these chemicals. When they are carried inland by the wind, they can sicken those who inhale them.
According to dozens of interviews conducted by Bellona in the months and years following the spill, as well as affidavits obtained by the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based whistleblower protection group, that’s exactly what happened.
“There is a core of very sick patients who undoubtedly will be ill for the remainder of their lives as the result of exposure to chemicals involved in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy,” says Michael Robichaux, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in south Louisiana and a former state senator.
In their interviews, many of these patients who worked on spill cleanup said they were discouraged by BP contractors from using protective gear, even though, as 2013 study later showed, Corexit, when mixed with oil is 52 times more toxic than oil alone.
Those who complained were met with efforts to silence them. In their affidavits and interviews, former cleanup workers attested to being the victims of an intimidation campaign for revealing they were ill. The sick were followed, their homes broken into, their trash ransacked, their privacy corroded. They became increasingly isolated.
Their advocates, meanwhile, were attacked in vicious online campaigns. With the rise of social media, Internet trolls connected to BP swarmed whistleblowers who posted photos of oiled beaches.
Even Bellona wasn’t safe. When I followed up on these reports by contacting BP in my hometown of New Orleans, I was told to be “careful” because company officials knew where my child attends school.
The intimidation became so intense that even five years after the spill I was meeting with sources who didn’t want their names printed in locations they didn’t want me to disclose.
“We could get killed for what we’re telling you,” began one such conversation at a remote beach cabin in Florida.
Even many doctors were unsure of what to do.
“Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was all in my head,” says Lamar Moore, who worked off the beaches of Alabama towing an oil skimmer in the aftermath of the spill.
He began coughing up blood and suffering blinding migraines during the first month the blowout continued. He still suffers from chronic bronchitis and wears special sunglasses to correct a heightened light sensitivity he has experienced since the 2010 disaster.
When Moore sought help at an Alabama hospital, he was told he was making things up for a quick payday. Like hundreds of others, he eventually found treatment far away from the Gulf. Others weren’t so lucky. Jack Hill, Moore’s crewmate, died of lung cancer in 2015.
Some of what ailed patients like Moore wasn’t officially acknowledged until 2017, when the US National Institutes of Health released a landmark study on nearly 30,000 people who had participated in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
It established what Moore and others had known for years – cleanup workers exposed to Corexit during the nearly three months oil spilled into the sea were likely to experience coughs, wheezing, chest tightness and eye, nose, throat and lung irritation.
The NIH study was followed by another, in 2018, from Johns Hopkins University, which found that oil dispersants increased the concentration of ultrafine particles, which can travel through the air and penetrate human lungs.
And in 2019, the US Coast Guard, which coordinated the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, released a study on 4,800 of personnel that responded to the disaster. The study found a relationship between increased exposure to dispersants and the likelihood of symptoms including coughing and shortness of breath.
These findings are borne out by the Government Accountability Project, which conducted a new 10th anniversary survey of the witnesses it interviewed for its earlier report. The new report establishes that nearly all of them were still suffering from symptoms they had reported in the months following the spill. In many cases, the report notes, some were reporting that their health had worsened.
While it may never be possible to arrive at an exact number for those affected by “BP Syndrome,” as this array of illnesses came to be called, litigation launched in 2012 offers a rough ballpark.
That year, BP agreed to a $7.8 billion class-action medical lawsuit for those who had gotten ill to avoid piecemeal litigation clogging the court system. The suit was designed to compensate victims $60,700 each, and allowed people to file further claims if they developed more serious symptoms.
More than 37,000 people filed claims under the class action suit. But eight years later, only a fraction of those claims have been paid. Countless others opted out of the suit to pursue individual litigation.
After the release of the NIH study, more than 6,000 new health claims were filed against BP, BloombergLaw news portal reports. Moore’s claim was among those, though he is still waiting for a settlement.
Yet, even with clear evidence that Corexit is dangerous to human health, it remains listed with the EPA as an approved dispersant for use on oil spills and the US government has failed to adopt meaningful controls on its application.