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Living With the Gulf Oil Disaster, Two Years Later

Dead dolphin on the Gulf Coast
This bottlenose dolphin is one of 600 cetaceans that have stranded themselves on Gulf beaches since the BP disaster.

When I traveled to the Gulf Coast during the summer of 2010 at the height of the BP spill (see: “Into the Gulf: A Journal”), the first place I stayed was at the Mobile, Alabama, home of Bethany Kraft. Bethany was then executive director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation and is now deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Program at the Ocean Conservancy. While I write of the spill as an outsider, she has lived it as an insider. To mark the spill’s anniversary, I wanted to check in with Bethany and ask her about where we are now, 724 days after the Deepwater Horizon well blew.

David Gessner: Today is the two-year anniversary of the BP disaster. For many of us, the spill is spoken of in the past tense, but for those who live on the Gulf, it is not. What strikes you the most after two years?

Bethany Kraft: Looking back, there is one moment very early on in the summer of 2010 that really stands out to me as a harbinger of the chaos to come. It was late April and the government response was being mobilized in Alabama. I got on the phone with several officials who were in charge of coordinating the placement of the boom that would ostensibly protect our most environmentally sensitive areas from the onslaught of oil. My questions were simple: where had the boom been placed and where would it go in the coming days? The answer I got was both hilarious and terrifying: “We can’t tell you where the boom is or where it is going in because no one has given us a printer.”

We weren’t prepared for a disaster on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon -- we didn’t know how to adequately protect our natural resources or our economies or our most vulnerable coastal communities. We didn’t know how a massive volume of oil would impact the Gulf ecosystem. We didn’t have the technology to respond to a deepwater drilling incident. We couldn’t even find a printer to make the maps to tell us where to put boom.

Two years out, I worry that the lessons we swore we would learn in those early months haven’t been given more than the most cursory consideration. I’m concerned that we still have so much to learn about the impacts of the disaster, and I fear that we aren’t any better prepared to address technological disasters than we were two years ago.

DG: When I was traveling along the coast during that unctuous summer of 2010, the scientists I talked to often said: “We’ll have to wait a couple of years until we even start to know anything.” Well, here it is, a couple of years later, and sure enough, we are starting to know some things. Over the last few weeks we’ve had reports about dying coral, sick and stranded dolphins, and low catches of shrimp and oysters.

BK: The images we saw of oiled wildlife in the summer of 2010 were just the tip of the iceberg. It takes time for scientists to understand how various species are affected, particularly if you are looking at impacts that may not show up for a generation or more, (like reproductive problems). We’re starting to see more oil-related studies crop up in the scientific literature, and so far the news is troubling. We know that birds, sea turtles, shrimp, finfish, and oysters were impacted, but now we are learning about damages caused to deepwater corals, killifish, zooplankton, and insects and spiders, just to name a few. And there is still much work to do to determine what those damages mean in the context of the Gulf ecosystem. For example, Gulf killifish play an important role in the food web. We know that these fish were exposed to BP oil in Louisiana marshes and as a result are growing up with damaged gills, but we don’t yet know what to predict in terms of how this may affect their reproduction or the Gulf food web. This work will continue for years.

The human impacts are just as bad and still ongoing. The BP disaster was just the latest in a string of challenges that face our coastal communities. Imagine a fisherman in Bayou La Batre who lost his house, boat, and livelihood after Hurricane Katrina and was just starting to get life back to normal -- only to have the rug pulled out from under him again and lose all of his income for an extended period. One thing I’ve found fascinating is a study about the fabric of community by Steve Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama who studies the human impact of technological disasters that cause massive environmental contamination (see "Q&A: A Human Disaster," Fall 2010). He said that natural disasters bring people together in a way that makes them stronger in the long run, but that technological disasters tend to do the opposite by breeding distrust in government and other institutions and reinforcing an "every man for himself" mentality. Our culture is still feeling the effect of this, and it’s very alarming.

DG: I live on the coast of North Carolina, and bottlenose dolphins are my neighbors. During my time in southern Louisiana I became friends with some filmmakers who worked for Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society. During the height of the spill they took me out into Barataria Bay on their boat. We watched dozens of dolphins dive in and out of the water, and then they swam right over to our boat, curious. I was struck by the fact that they were living in a stew of oil and dispersant.

BK: The recent news of the declining health of dolphin populations is very troubling. They are high on the food chain and in many ways act as important indicator species that tells us a lot about the health of the ecosystem. More than 600 cetaceans have stranded themselves on Gulf beaches since April 2010. Early results from 32 dolphins tested in Barataria Bay in Louisiana show that many of these dolphins are underweight, anemic, have low blood sugar, and/or have signs of liver and lung disease. About half have low levels of hormones that help in stress response, metabolism, and immune function. Many of those still alive are not expected to survive. For me, this is one of the most compelling reasons that restoration in the Gulf has to have a strong science and monitoring component -- we need to continuously take the pulse of the Gulf ecosystem so we can address problems like declining health in our dolphin population. I like to think that I’ve stayed fairly focused and level-headed over the past two years, but listening to government scientists reel off this laundry list of dolphin impacts was very difficult for me. It’s not acceptable.

DG: I’ve been very critical of the media coverage of the spill, which, in my mind, went from all to nothing. As I’ve written in these pages, during the summer of 2010 close to 40 percent of all televised news coverage was about the spill. But then, as if embarrassed by this excess, the coverage all but disappeared. I have been particularly critical of the New York Times, which reported credibly on a rosy NOAA report in July 2010 that said the oil had all “evaporated” or been eaten by oil-eating microbes. They story ran under the headline “Oil in Gulf Poses Only Slight Risk, U.S. Report Says.”

Lots of scientists criticized the report, but the effect was: “This is over.”  The capping of the well in September  seemed to mark the end of the official coverage. There was a good piece in the Wall Street Journal last Friday, but even that piece had a “not as bad as we expected” angle. Which is understandable: it wasn’t the complete nightmare many of us envisioned at first. But I feel that our relief over this, over having “dodged a bullet,” blinds us to the less obvious impacts. One thing I’ve noticed in all the mainstream coverage is the fact that no one seems to mention the millions of gallons of the dispersant, Corexit, that were dumped into the water. In the Wall Street Journal piece, for instance, the only mention of dispersants is to say “chemical dispersants broke up crude both below the surface and on it, as did naturally occurring oil-eating microbes.” On the other hand, the story does conclude with this quote from the scientist Doug Inkley: "The oil spill is to the Gulf what smoking is to a human. You're still able to function overall, but not nearly as well."

BK: In some ways I understand the media’s desire to put a bookend on the whole saga and move on to the next crises, and I understand that people outside of the region may not see the disaster as relevant to their daily lives. But the story of the Gulf of Mexico is not simply the story of the Deepwater Horizon. And BP isn’t the only bad guy. The Gulf has been an incredibly prolific ecosystem, and until the last 100 or so years, we haven’t had to worry that it wouldn’t be able to give us everything we wanted. But it’s now clear that it’s no longer a given that the Gulf can absorb all of our requests for its bounty and remain unchanged.

The list of woes facing the region is long, and you’ve likely heard them all before: nutrient pollution, wetland loss, loss of barrier island protection, unsustainable fishing practices, and on and on. These challenges aren’t new, and they aren’t going away unless people in, say, Iowa realize they have a stake in improving the health of the Gulf of Mexico. What makes the story of the Gulf oil disaster so compelling (and frustrating) for me is that this is one case where the villain, BP, also has an opportunity to be the hero -- not by choice, but as a result of the lawsuits and government fines that should result from the spill. For years we’ve said that what we on the Gulf are lacking is funding to restore our ecosystems. But now, through established legal processes that came about as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill, we can mitigate the damage caused by the oil disaster. And there is a second potential source of funds: fines levied against BP by state and federal agencies for violations of environmental statutes like the Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Those could go a long way toward addressing long-term degradation in the region. We don’t yet know the total dollar amount BP will end up paying, but we do know we need legislation to move that money to the Gulf, and that the bill that would do it, known as the RESTORE Act, has not been passed by Congress.

If we expected the entire Gulf of Mexico to become a toxic gumbo of Louisiana sweet crude and dead animals after the rig explosion, then no, the media’s depiction of the “worst-case scenario” didn’t come to pass. But if we let another year go by without seizing the opportunity to address both oil impacts and long-term degradation, courtesy of BP’s pocketbook, then I will consider that a worse fate. It will mean we have learned nothing and that all of the sacrifices that have been forced upon us were in vain.

DG: One of the things that I think confuses people are the claims, prominent in the current batch of BP commercials, that Gulf seafood is safe to eat. Their commercials trumpet the fact that the seafood has been frequently tested and none of it has been found to be contaminated. When people hear this, they assume the Gulf is back. But testing for chemicals in seafood is not the same as testing for deformities and habitat degradation. What do you make of the testing? I know that traces of oil and dispersant have been found in some species. Given this, how can it be that the seafood is all considered OK to eat?

BK: There are no simple answers to this question. For instance, if a study were to show that a particular fish species experienced health impacts as a result of being exposed to oil, that doesn’t mean that a human would expect to have the same health impacts or that the seafood isn’t safe for human consumption. When talking about potential risk to humans, the answer depends on what particular type of seafood you are consuming, how much and how often you consume it, and whether you are considered a member of a vulnerable population, like a young child or a pregnant woman. This study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) claims that the FDA’s allowable limits of some oil-related contaminants were not sufficient to protect vulnerable populations, and that concerns me a great deal. Unfortunately, there is no single source of information on this issue, so we are left to make the best decisions we can with what we know. For me it boils down to the following:

  1. Trusting what the science says is a better bet than trusting a slick PR campaign
  2. Continued testing and monitoring is not just important for the seafood we consume, it’s important for the entire restoration process. Without an investment in science and long-term monitoring, we won’t be able to answer these questions with any degree of certainty.
  3. I really like Gulf seafood, and I still eat it, though not as often as I did prior to 2010.

DG: For me the Gulf spill has had an almost metaphoric importance beyond the spill itself. It’s shown me how we think as a nation. How we get obsessively into something, then ignore it, and how we operate in panic mode, emergency mode. One thing most of us certainly don’t do is think like naturalists. A naturalist looks for connections, sometimes subtle, and notes effects that are often hard to trace back to their source. An example would be the hike we took with Bill Finch on Grand Bay in July of 2010. He pointed to the millions of periwinkles that were eating the marsh grass, and noted that the only thing that kept the periwinkles in check were the blue crabs, which were at that moment migrating back to the marsh over the oily ocean floor. Were the crab population to fall, the periwinkles would be blamed for destroying the marsh, but it is always more complicated than that. That’s the kind of subtler disaster that doesn’t make the news. It’s not as sexy as an oiled pelican, but that doesn’t make it less real. For instance, in Alaska, years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, the herring fishery collapsed. The thing with these sorts of troubles is that they are hard to trace back to their source.

BK: Ecosystems are complex. They function in ways that we don’t fully understand. As you said, connections aren’t always easy to make, even for scientists, and they certainly aren’t easy to describe in a sound bite. I think a lot about the best way to make these concepts relevant to regular citizens, because though they are complex, they affect us profoundly. Over time I’ve come to believe that there is one word that is critical to our understanding of how ecosystems work and how damaging one link in the chain can affect the very way we live. That word is why. I know we are capable of asking this critical question because we all learned it and wore it out by the time we were 3 years old. When confronted by something we don’t fully understand, all we have to do is ask why, then answer the question, then ask why again and again until we get to the very root of the issue. The fancy term for this is root cause analysis, and it is a powerful tool to understand how things are connected and what we can do to actually solve problems, rather than simply alleviate the most obvious symptoms.

To use your example above, let’s say that I go back to Grand Bay and notice that the marsh grass doesn’t cover as much ground as it did in 2010. Why? It’s being eaten down by periwinkles faster than the grass can grow and reproduce. Why? There are more periwinkles than in previous years. Why? They’re reproducing faster. Why? Their natural predator, the crab, is present in much lower numbers. Why … on and on you go. If you don’t ask this fundamental question, you may well stop before you get to the right answer. For instance, if I saw periwinkles proliferating and damaging the marsh grass and didn’t trace the cause back to its root, maybe I would say that the solution is to try to eradicate the periwinkle so the marsh could grow back, when really I should have kept going and gotten to the point where I decided to focus on bringing the crab population back up.  It’s a different way of looking at the natural world, but I think it’s the only way to accomplish lasting and meaningful restoration in the Gulf.

Tracing ecosystem impacts back to their source is difficult, but it can be done. And there’s not a single one of us who isn’t capable of acting like a 3 year old, so I think we are up for the task.

image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at ... READ MORE >
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/bpoilspill/deeptrouble
I have a very basic question: was the Deepwater oil spill any worse, environmentally, than if the oil had been refined and burned in cars? It seems to me that, either way, the oil left the ground and the difference is only whether oil went directly into the water or whether it was combusted, sent into the air, and then settled on the land and washed into the water. Are immediate, visible effects of spilled oil worse than invisible air pollution?
It's a great question. It's one that the whole country was asking when the spill first happened, and one we still should be asking. But, leaving theory aside, I would say that the practical answer is "yes." Dolphins breathing in a mix of oil and dispersant is very different than the effect that air pollution would have. And the oil has affected ecosytems in ways that air pollution alone would not.