“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” One hears this phrase far too often along the brilliant white beaches, dark bayous, and hidden back bays of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Despite falling off the precipice of media attention, people in the Gulf have not forgotten what happened here in spring of 2010. Even if they tried, nature would keep sending them—and the rest of us—constant reminders.
Two years ago today, BP’s Deepwater Horizon well exploded, unleashing more than 200 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the Gulf. Combined with nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant and 500,000 more tons of gaseous hydrocarbons, a mind-bending volume of pollutants were ultimately dumped into Gulf waters. By far the largest spill in U.S. history, the cumulative size of the surface slick alone was large enough to cover the entire state of Oklahoma.
So, what do we now know about the spill’s environmental impacts? It’s still too early to understand most of the damages (some caused by Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill took a decade or more to detect), but what we already know is unsettling enough. Let’s begin with seafood, a major industry and economic driver in the Gulf. In 2008, the seafood industry drove a robust $5.5 billion economic engine for the region. Yet despite reopening the once-closed fishing zones, and disclaimers after the spill that Gulf seafood is safe, a scientific study found that Food and Drug Administration guidelines allowed up to 10,000 times too much contamination, and did not properly identify the true risks of the Gulf’s contaminated seafood to children and pregnant women.
If that were not enough, Gulf fishermen report shrimp without eyes, fish covered in open sores, clawless crabs, and other mutated and underdeveloped catch. Crabbers are harvesting 75 percent fewer crabs than in years before the spill, and the crabs they do catch are often dead, discolored, and riddled with holes or missing sections of their shells. In some places, shrimp and oyster harvests remain low, exacerbating the economic deprivation caused by the spill to Gulf residents.
And yet the impacts of the spill go even deeper into the Gulf ecosystem. Hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon spill were first trapped in the ocean food chain through some of its tiniest members: zooplankton. Contaminated zooplankton were actually chemically fingerprinted with certainty back to origins from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. And since zooplankton serve as food for baby fish and shrimp, they help move oil contamination and pollutants up the food chain.
Do we yet know the full scope of harm from this oil spill? Hardly. Links between dolphin deaths and the spill are still being investigated. Since early 2010, an unusually high number of marine mammals — 580, mostly dolphins — stranded and died off the coast of Louisiana to Florida. The total number of marine birds killed by the Deepwater Horizon spill is yet to be tallied. Is there hope for recovery in the Gulf of Mexico? Sure. Did we learn our lessons? Apparently not. Despite the intentions to do better in the future after this unprecedented spill, the Oil Spill Commission gave only a summary grade of “B” to the administration, a “C+” to the oil industry, and a paltry “D” to Congress. If the continuing harm from this tragedy doesn’t teach us that the risks of drilling are simply too high, will we ever learn?