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On April 20th 2010, just two summers ago, south of the northern coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, a sea-floor oil gusher blew out a wellhead on a British Petroleum (BP) deepwater oil drilling rig. The 9-year-old, semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit was missing the proper safety mechanisms to endure such a jolt, un-sealing its fate and killing 11 workers, injuring 17 and setting the billion-dollar rig up in flames, with a continuous gush of off-shore oil to fuel the fire.
The aftermath of the blowout continued for 87 days after the initial explosion, as engineers were unable to seal off the damaged well. During that time, 4,900,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico (covering an area spanning 180,000 square kilometers). Indigenous wildlife and coastlines were covered in tar, massive plumes of dissolved oil and gas quietly appeared underneath the water’s surface, and 1.9 million gallons of toxic oil dispersants were dumped into its freshwater. The extent of the contamination to the Gulf’s intricate bayou ecosystems is incalculable and has left local communities wary about the health of surrounding ecosystems and their ability to rely on the water for their survival.
The explosion and subsequent oil spill were tragic, preventable incidents with devastating impacts – for those who lost their lives, for families living and working along the coast, and for the fauna and environment in the Gulf. This past winter I had the opportunity to interview almost 200 coastline residents who had lived through the disaster, and who were still living with the fallout. Over three months and three states (Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi), as I travelled across the shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico, the criminal effects of this avoidable disaster became were blindingly evident in the local populations, ecosystems and economies, even though its oily evidence was then buried at sea. Here are some of the stories from the folks I spoke to:
Greg*, owner of a small crab processing plant located in a town in the heartland of the Louisiana bayou system, talked about the decline in crab populations in the Gulf: “Crab catches have been down and of the ones we do catch, fifty percent are dying right after they come out of the water. I’ve never seen anything like this before... Last year at this time, I was employing twenty-five people and now I have only two. All the crab houses will have to shut down until business picks up again.”
Linda*, owner of a large ma-and-pop shrimping company in the Guly, expressed her disillusionment with the BP cleanup. “There’s no adapting to what happened after BP because, regardless of what we do or the type of restoration that goes on, there is a perception that seafood from Louisiana is contaminated.” She went on to say that the young families her company had hired have experienced a huge blow. “After the spill, we had to let some workers go and had to distribute pay cuts with the ones who stayed. Even now we’re not at full staff like before.”
Janine*, a now unemployed truck driver living in Houma, LA, sat blankly most days, waiting for her job to pick up, “I just want industry around here to get going again but, it’s not going fast enough. I was doing five runs a week (before the spill) and now I barely have two. I don’t know what to do. I’ve maxed out all my credits cards, can’t find work and don’t even like to change out of my pajamas in the morning because I have no place to go.” Janine had to move in with her daughter’s family in a cramped bungalow house in Houma because she couldn’t make rent. At the end of our interview, she angrily adds: “We found out the hard way just what it’s like when someone cuts corners.”
From an aerial shot, the Louisiana Bayou looks like a complex nervous system that connects the southern coastlines of the United States. Up close, you can see that it’s a fertile wetland of low-lying, slow moving water that provides a natural drainage system for the Mississippi and is a major player in setting the scene for local food chains. It’s home to waterfowl, migratory birds, alligator, mink, otters and aquatic grasses and is also a nursery for the eggs and larvae of shrimp, crab, oysters, fish and invertebrates, all of which rely on each other to survive and mature.
While low catches, work shortages and oil-covered pelicans have been the most immediate and visible effects of the spill, the long-term consequences of the now-hidden oil and dispersants to ecosystems remain unknown.
Margaret*, a 50-year, Bayou Le Batre resident, who owns a small bait shop off a small inlet in southern Alabama, spoke about her reaction when she started volunteering for the clean-up, “When I went out on the boat for the first time and saw the oil, I started to cry. I’ve been here my whole life and I got grandkids. I won’t be letting them in that water because I was out there. I saw what was there and it’s not gone. I know it.”
Now that two years have passed since the disaster, things only seem to be getting worse for local residents and fisher-people of the deep southern coast and Louisiana bayous. Oyster, shrimp, crab and fish stocks have not come back and the dependency on the Gulf Coast as a way of life is on the verge of extinction. These effects have only compounded problems for communities already fighting the effects of widespread land erosion, hurricanes, human-dredged oil and gas channels that intersect across the Bayou, the destruction of oyster reefs and rising sea levels.
Similar to Prince William Sound, the site of the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, the health of the Gulf of Mexico remains invisibly compromised due to human negligence and the extraction of oil. And, now that all the TV cameras are gone and political interest has moved onto the next thing, there’s nothing that residents can do about it but wait—without answers.
The irreversible effects of technological, man-made disasters should be an important beacon in bringing attention to the unnecessary environmental risks we take in sustaining and expanding industrial production on a globalized scale. Disasters like this remind us that a loss of control of our systems can quickly become an uncontrollable mess. If we do not learn from the lessons of the past, disasters like the BP oil spill, Fukushima and the Bhopal disaster will continue to happen and more and more innocent will have to suffer and then be forgotten.
*All names have been changed to preserve the anonymity those who contributed