On April 20, 2010, an explosion at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled 3.19 million barrels of oil into the waters of the Gulf and onto the shorelines of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The accident devastated the fishing and tourism industries of the Gulf Coast region, creating one of the worst manmade environmental calamities on record. Years since the oil spill happened, thousands of marine species and livelihoods are still affected.
The Largest Oil Spill in History
For 87 days, oil gushed into one of the planet’s most biodiverse marine habitats. With millions of barrels of oil spilled into the ocean, authorities have had a hard time managing the situation. The final progress report from the Deepwater Horizon study group revealed that 10 different techniques were used to try to plug the leak. This involved closing the blowout preventer with a remotely operated vehicle, capturing oil spewing from the riser, “killing” the well by injecting heavy mud into the blowout preventer, and more.
However, all of those techniques failed. Engineers finally succeeded by bolting a sealing cap on top of the blowout preventer, which provided a temporary fix until engineers could pump heavy kill mud and cement into the well. This helped in reducing pressure at the wellhead and permanently sealing off flow paths. While they finally succeeded, it will not erase how the oil spill caused the deaths of 11 people and affected thousands of marine species.
After the oil spill, BP contracted Polaris to assess the area affected and provide recommendations for cleanup. The team led by Ed Owens, the shoreline cleanup technical adviser, found out that about 1,000 miles of shoreline had been affected. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the assessment revealed that the oil covering them was more than three-foot wide and covered 50% distribution, including about 80 miles of heavily oiled wetland.
The immense repercussions of the accident followed. The spill not only resulted in substantial losses for BP in 2010, but it also forced the company's CEO to leave his post that same year. According to Investopedia, the world's leading source of financial content on the web, BP pled guilty to 14 felony charges from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and paid fines of more than $4 billion on settling the case in 2012. Including the payments to settle various civil claims, the company paid more than $40 billion.
In 2011, the US government released the causes of the explosion. This includes defective cement on the borehole; failure of two valves, a gas alarm, and battery backup systems; misinterpretation of pressure tests, and insufficient management and industry oversight. Not only did the oil spill threaten the jobs of thousands of offshore oil workers in the Gulf region, but it also resulted in severe ecological damages.
Environmental Impacts of the BP Oil Spill
Immediate impacts were seen among the animals of the Gulf of Mexico: smothered turtles washed up on beaches, fish belly-up in brown sludge, pelicans black with oil, and more. However, the amount of damage the oil spill caused requires many years of monitoring and research to understand what happened.
Previous reports state that the US’s imperiled species were especially hard hit. For instance, all five species of the Gulf's sea turtles are endangered. The accident killed as many as 7,600 large sea turtles and as many as 160,000 baby ones. Endangered sperm whales suffered an estimated 7% decline in their population, which will take 21 years to recover. Bryde’s whales suffered a 22% population loss, which will take 69 years to get them back to where they were. Strandings of both sea turtles and dolphins also increased significantly in the years following the spill.
A 2015 report revealed that an average of 63 dolphin deaths a year was reported in the Gulf from 2002 to 2009. After the oil spill, the figure increased to 125 in 2010 and 335 in all of 2011, averaging more than 200 a year since April 2010. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, many species such as deep-sea coral, common loons, and spotted sea trout are still struggling ten years after the oil spill.
A recent study, which sampled more than 2,500 individual fish that belonged to 91 species living in 359 different locations in the Gulf, revealed that a toxic crude oil component was found in fish bile. The researchers found out that the oil pollution in the fish included levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs. The findings showed that high levels of PAHs are found in tilefish, which live in the seafloor, proving that the oil spill found its way to the seafloor as well.
According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, high levels of PAHs also appeared in fish that don't call the seafloor home. "We were quite surprised that among the most contaminated species was the fast-swimming yellowfin tuna as they are not found at the bottom of the ocean where most oil pollution in the Gulf occurs. Although water concentrations of PAHs can vary considerably, they are generally found at trace levels or below detection limits in the water column. So where is the oil pollution we detected in tunas coming from?" lead author Erin Pulster, a researcher at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, said.
While scientists say that it’s still too early to tell definitively what the impact has been for longer-lived species such as dolphins, whales, and sea turtles, early findings show a glimpse into how they are affected. The bottlenose dolphins, for instance, have higher rates of reproductive failure, lung disease, heart issues, impaired stress response, and death. Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, said that these symptoms are also the most common health issues faced by humans.
Two 2018 studies revealed that cleanup workers and US Coast Guard personnel who had been in contact with the oil suffered from impaired lung and heart function and strained breathing. “You don't necessarily think of a dolphin as being representative of yourself or a human being representative of a dolphin, but our lives overlap. We're in this space together, and there's a lot to learn from that,” Smith said.