Monday, April 20, 2015

Deepwater Horizon Disaster: Five Years Later

Five years ago today the BP Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil well in the Gulf of Mexico burst into flames following a blow out. Eleven workers died in the accident and 11 others were injured. Oil and gas gushed out for months from the broken pipe at the floor of the sea. The actual quantity of the spill was difficult to ascertain initially, and estimates ranged from 10,000 to 100,000 barrels per day. After the fact, it was determined that the maximum rate of spill was about 62,000 barrels a day and over the three-month period of the spill, 4.9 million barrels of oil had poured out. Even though this figure is questioned as it is important to the litigation and fines that BP has to pay, the range of discrepancy has narrowed—somewhere between 3.2 and 4.2 billion barrels. Researchers are still trying to figure where most of the oil went, because only about a quarter of amount has been accounted for.
Over 600 miles of the coastline were affected. Fishery and tourism are major industries of the region, and suffered enormous losses. The damage to the environment, to the local flora and fauna, and the destruction of their habitat was catastrophic in scope. There was a marked decline in the population of shrimp, oysters, and various fish, and the concern was that with the loss of much of their habitat, populations of pelicans, turtles, and dolphins would also collapse. People feared that seafood from the region would be contaminated with toxins threatening the industry. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy the headlines screamed of the irrevocable damage to the fragile ecology of the area—that the place would forever turn into a wasteland.
Now, forever is a very long time. Not to minimize the catastrophe that the DWH blowout was, it seemed to me though that the alarmist response was uncalled for, and it distracted attention from the real restorative work that needed to be done. Deepwater Horizon was only one of several major events in which large amounts of oil were discharged into seas and oceans and these accidents could provide some valuable lessons.
A year following the DWH blowout, I wrote a post about the accident. I looked at what happened after four specific incidents of major oil spills:  Amoco Cadiz, Ixtoc 1, Exxon Valdez, and the sabotage by Iraqi army following the first Gulf War in 1991.  I also noted that about 10 million gallons of oil naturally seeps in the Gulf of Mexico every year. The main conclusion I drew was that as tragic as these events have been for the people and animals directly affected, they also provide a strong testament to the resilience of the environment as recovery of the environment, and that we would expect the Gulf of Mexico to also recover in three to five years.
I have been reviewing many of the articles about the aftermath of the disaster. Some of the noteworthy findings are:
·      The Food and Drug Administration tested seafood from the Gulf of Mexico for contaminants but has found few problems with toxicity.
·      Studies on the fate of the oil show that the oil-eating microbes, which are endemic to the region because of the natural oil seepage, feasted on the oil spill and biodegraded the oil. The sharp increase in the population of these microbes could have reduced the dissolved oxygen and adversely affect other species, but that scenario did not play out.
·      Fish and shrimp populations have rebounded to pre-disaster levels, and the seafood industry has largely recovered. However, oyster harvests have not yet recovered, possibly because of their limited mobility to move to oil-free areas.
·      Tourists have returned to the region bringing with them the anticipated economic recovery.
To be sure there are still many unanswered questions particularly about the long-term effects. The general point I want to emphasize is that as with previous cases of oil spills, nature has once again bounced back. It is not an excuse to be lackadaisical about oil spills. Safety has to be number one on the minds when drilling for oil in the seas, as it should be in many other industrial operations. Safe operating procedures and disaster preparedness have to be constantly improved as new information becomes available. At the same time we should recognize that oil is not an acute toxin and oil spills do not spell the demise of the region. Nature is remarkably resilient, and that’s worth celebrating.