From the Guardian
Peter Moskowitz in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana
To hear BP tell it, the environmental disaster that struck the Gulf of Mexico five years ago is nearly over – the beaches have been cleared of oil, and the water in the Gulf is as clear as it ever was. But how do you spot a continued disaster if its main indicator is the absence of something?
On this strip of land in south-eastern Louisiana, the restaurants are still empty, FOR SALE signs are increasing in store windows, people are still moving away, and this marina on Pointe a la Hache – once packed most afternoons with oystermen bringing in their catch on their small boats, high school kids earning a few bucks unloading the sacks, and 18-wheelers backed up by the dozen to carry them away – is completely devoid of life, save one man, 69-year-old Clarence Duplessis, who cleans his boat to pass the time.
“At this time of day, at this marina, it used to be packed,” Duplessis said. “And now there’s nothing.”
It’s been nearly five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and spilling nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and residents, fisherman, activists and scientists say the cleanup and restoration is far from over. While some phenomena in the Gulf – people getting sick, fishing nets coming back empty – are hard to definitively pin on BP – experts say the signs of ecological and economic loss that followed the spill are deeply concerning for the future of the Gulf. Meanwhile, BP has pushed back hard on the notion that the effects of its disaster are much to worry about, spending millions on PR and commercials to convince Gulf residents everything will be OK.
“The data collected thus far shows that the environmental catastrophe that so many feared, perhaps understandably at the time, did not come to pass, and that the Gulf is recovering faster than expected,” Geoff Morrell, a BP senior vice-president for communications, said in an email.
The company says that depleted oyster beds could be due to a variety of factors other than the spill – including the divergence of fresh water from the Mississippi into coastal marshes.
But the company’s reassurances have done little to quell people’s fear in Plaquemines Parish.
Anxiety seems to be the most prevalent emotion in this part of the state. Every cough and every cancer screening, every paltry catch and shrimp missing an eye raises the question – is it BP?
On Pointe a la Hache, about 45 minutes south of New Orleans and mostly accessible by car ferry, oystermen say their catches plummeted after the spill, and have only been getting worse.
“We don’t have anything left on the East Bank,” said Roy Harvey, a 57-year-old lifelong oysterman, who now travels away from Pointe a la Hache’s federal waters to the West Bank of the Mississippi. He now has to pay private landowners 50% of his catch to fish in their more fruitful areas. “It used to be boats from Texas and Mississippi came all the way here. It’s not going back to normal no time soon.”
In total, BP has so far spent $27bn in economic claims, its disaster response efforts, fines to various governments, and cleanup and restoration programs.
The company has been sued by dozens of entities since the Deepwater Horizon spill, including state, local and federal governments, and individuals claiming economic loss. It has so far agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines and plead guilty to a host of criminal charges, including felony manslaughter. In 2012, the company also signed an agreement to pay billions in economic claims estimated to total just under $10 billion to businesses suffering because of the spill, but has fought the interpretation of that agreement at every step, claiming it it too easy for businesses without any proof of the spill directly causing damage to their bottom lines to win claims. The Supreme Court recently rejected BP’s bid to hear their challenge to that case.
The company will also likely be liable for up to $13.7 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act. A decision on the exact dollar amount of that fine could be made by US district judge Carl Barbier within the next couple of weeks or months. BP has said its US subsidiary could go bankrupt if that fine totals more than $2.3 billion.
But Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and a Pointe a la Hache native, says the average claim for his association’s members ranged from a couple thousand to about $25,000. That, he says, is paltry when compared to the years-long recovery he sees ahead of him.
“They have no earthly idea of what they destroyed,” Encalade said. “You could give my men $1m, but you took away a million-dollar lifestyle.”
What, exactly, has been destroyed, and what has been recovered, is a matter of debate and the focus of countless court cases and PR battles. Last month, BPreleased a report based on several scientific studies with a conclusion that data “do not indicate a significant long-term impact to the population of any Gulf species”. According to the report, the impact of the spill will be limited because the the well was deep and far from shore, because the oil spilled was of a “light” variety, and because of the Gulf’s “natural resilience”.
But several groups, including the board of trustees appointed under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to oversee federal scientific work related to the spill, quickly dismissed BP’s report as “inappropriate” and “premature”.
“BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn’t support its claims,” the trustees said in a statement.
And while BP has tried to downplay the economic impact of the spill, researchers say it’s still too early to tell what the full effect of the spill will be. If previous ecological disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill are any indication, it will be decades.
“There aren’t many big spills, but when they happen the effects generally persist for many, many, many years, and often for more than a decade,” said Charles Mason, a professor of petroleum and natural gas economics at the University of Wyoming who testified in the federal court case against BP on the economic impacts of the spill earlier this year. “It’s incredibly naive to think everything is just fine.”
But definitive science and research on the spill is still scarce. That’s partly because the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a federally mandated process that requires scientists to submit data to the government in order to assess possible fines against BP, requires that much of the information received be kept private until the process is completed. And it’s partly because the potential environmental impact of the spill is unprecedented.
“The Gulf is a big, complicated system that we struggle to understand in the best of times,” said Alisha Renfro, a staff scientist with the National Wildlife Federation in New Orleans. “Then we added 134 million gallons of oil to it.”
The NWF’s own compliation of science suggests at least 20 species are still being impacted by the spill. Those species include dolphins, which were found dead at four times the normal rate last year.
To be sure, not all the news is negative in the Gulf. For some fishermen, business is back to normal or even exceeding 2005’s numbers Ryan Lambert, a southern Louisiana native who owns a fleet of 12 fishing boats that he rents for tours, fishing, and duck hunting, is doing well enough to build himself a new, 8,000 square-foot home in a planned community just west of New Orleans. But, Lambert said, that increased business came from adapting to a new normal – bringing tour groups to places filled with species of fish made popular by TV series about fishing, and avoiding places with species that seem to have been affected five years ago.
“When it comes down to it, I’m OK,” Lambert said. “But I’m worried about the speckled trout, the crabs, the mullet. We have some bad signs. Whether or not Mother Nature will overcome it, we’ll see. I think she will.”
There are some other things Mother Nature will have to overcome if residents of Plaquemines Parish have any hope of a normal life in the coming decades. Southern Louisiana’s economy hasn’t only been ravaged by the spill, but by multiple hurricanes and the ever-encroaching coastline: Louisiana is losing a football field worth of wetlands every 48 minutes thanks to a combination of global warming and a history of oil companies failing to remediate the canals they dredge for pipelines and oil and gas production.
The oil spill, the ever-present danger posed by nature, and the manmade failures that have exacerbated it, have had a cumulative impact on the mental states of the area’s residents.
Toward the bottom of Louisiana, where the tip of Plaquemines Parish tapers off into the Gulf, is the town of Buras. There, even five years later, the spill seems to be a daily topic of conversation.
At Black Velvet Oyster Bar and Grill, empty on a recent Friday, three waitresses sat around comparing stories about environmental impacts they say are related to the spill.
“My Facebook feed is filled with my friends’ pictures of crabs with no eyes, shrimp and crawfish with one eye or things missing,” Misty Fisher, 24, said.
Fisher and her fellow waitresses say they all know people who are sick – respiratory infections, breast cancers, constant headaches – which they blame on the spill.
It’s well established that exposure to chemicals in oil, namely benzene, can cause serious health issues, especially respiratory illnesses. And the dispersant Corexit, used by BP to break up the spilled oil into small droplets, was found to contain five chemicals associated with cancer, 10 chemicals that may be toxic to kidneys, as well as other potentially toxic chemicals.
But proving a direct connection between the oil, dispersant, and persistent health issues in the Gulf has been tougher. One 2013 from the University Cancer and Diagnostic Centers in Houston, Texas, suggested that study suggested that oil spill workers are at a higher risk for cancers. And preliminary results from a 10-year study being conducted by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences tracking the health effects of people who worked during the oil spill recovery suggest many are carrying in their blood biomarkers of chemicals found in the oil from BP’s deepwater well.
Fisher worked during the height of the recovery, helping launch boats that were going out to sop up oil. Months later, she gave birth to two daughters prematurely. She said she still gets letters in the mail from lawyers asking if she wants to file claims against BP. But, Fisher said, she doesn’t want to start down that road. Her day-to-day anxiety is enough.
“I just feel like, yes, they did affect us, but I don’t want to drag it out,” she said.
Down the road, Kindra Arnesen, who was one of the most prominent anti-BP activists in the wake of the spill, is beginning to feel the same way. Her husband David is a fisherman and worked cleaning up oil during the recovery. Now he has headaches, rashes, fever, and a cough that “echoes through the house”, according to Kindra. She also says several of her friends and family members became sick after the spill with similar ailments. She’s been to a funeral nearly every month since the summer.
The fishing business used to be good, Kindra Arnesen said. King Mackerel season once netted her family between $40,000 and $60,000, and carried them through spring. Now, their credit cards are maxed out and their bank accounts are empty. They say they want to sell their house and move somewhere, anywhere else. But it’s hard to sell a house on land being eaten up by the ocean, in a town still showing signs of damage from multiple hurricanes, and in the middle of an environmental disaster. So, for now, the Arnesens are stuck.
“My brain is burnt,” Arnesen said, smoking a cigarette on her front porch and looking out on to the rapidly emptying subdivision she lives in. “Our fishery is no longer sustainable. Our health is no longer sustainable. Our land is no longer sustainable. I just want this to be over with.”