What caused the BP oil spill

Oil spill in the Gulf of MexicoThe forgotten disaster

John Lopez steers his boat out of the small port of Pointe à la Hache into a narrow canal. Green silt grass sways in the wind on the banks, crabs dig in the muddy ground and birds dive into the water in search of fish.

After about a kilometer, the stocky man with a black and gray beard stops the boat and climbs to the shore. Coastal researcher John Lopez works for the Lake Pontchatrain Basin Foundation and often drives out to the coastal marshes south of New Orleans.

Lopez spreads out a map on which a network of small and tiny waterways runs through a network of islets: the Mississippi Delta, on the Louisiana coast.

"We're about here now. This marshland was oily back then, even if not as severe as other areas."

About 800 million liters of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and summer of 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion. It was the biggest oil spill in history.

"The oil has killed many plants directly and has long-term damage to the wetlands. Just like the oysters, crabs, fish, crabs, shrimps and other animals. "

The small island where John Lopez is now looking for traces of oil is in Plaquemines Parish. This community suffered more than any other from the aftermath of the oil spill, reports Billy Nungesser. The Republican was mayor of Plaquemines Parish for many years.

"According to figures from BP and the Coast Guard, our community alone received 33 percent of the amount of oil that was washed up on the entire Gulf Coast. "

The oil spill hit the people on the coast twice as hard

The oil killed hundreds of thousands of birds and fish, hundreds of marine mammals, countless crabs, shrimp, insects and microorganisms. The fishery had to be stopped in large parts of the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010. The oil spill hit the people on the coast twice as hard.

Many animals die from the oil spill caused by Deepwater Horizon (BP) 2010. (imago / UPI Photo)

"In many families here in Plaquemines Parish, some family members work in the fishing industry and others in the oil industry. When the moratorium was introduced after the oil disaster and nobody was allowed to work on the oil platforms, but at the same time nobody could fish, it was very hard for the community. People just didn't know how to make a living or how it would go on in the long run. "

And then BP got involved and spread even more fear and uncertainty.

"I was very upset at the time. You could see that on television every evening. BP has always put new obstacles in our way. When the first pictures of oily birds were shown on TV, we thought we would get help to save these birds. And people from all over the world came to help. But BP and the Coast Guard said anyone who even approaches the barriers will end up in jail. Apparently we disrupted the cleanup. We all know that was an outright lie. They just wanted to intimidate the helpers to prevent further pictures of oily birds on television. "

All of this put a lot of strain on people, says Billy Nungesser. Dale Sandler has the same impression. The physician from the US National Institute for Environmental Medicine is currently conducting a large-scale study into the consequences of the oil spill on the health of people on the coast. She is particularly interested in the workers who helped clean beaches and coasts from oil. Dale Sandler and her team asked 32,000 people about their tasks during the oil spill, their employment situation and their state of health. Immediately after the oil spill and then repeatedly in the years that followed.

"Our data suggest that those who took part in the clean-up operations and those who lived on the affected coastlines complained more often of a range of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, dizziness and nausea. And that for years. But we don't yet know whether these symptoms were caused by the oil itself, the living conditions in the communities, or the traumatic experience of the oil spill. "

Most of the workers came from the high unemployment and poor health communities on the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Here, three of the poorest states in the United States border the ocean.

"From previous oil spills and also from ongoing studies in the affected communities, we know that anxiety and depression often increase after oil spills and that there are signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. To witness the oil spill up close and to fight against the oil on the beaches - all of this is very stressful. Just like losing your job and not knowing what to do next, if and when you can fish again and how to finance your life. All of these aspects could explain the depression we diagnose. "

Dale Sandler's results are still fragmentary. Some of the cleaning workers refuse to work with her. They are currently suing BP for damages, and their lawyers fear the doctors may diagnose them with non-oil-related chronic illnesses. That would seriously weaken their prospects for profit in the proceedings.

As if the oil spill had never happened

"I was at home watching the news about the fire on TV. At first I was just interested and didn't think it was going to get out of hand, that we would get this catastrophic oil spill. We kept watching TV for the next few days and slowly the horror rose in us when we realized what was going on in the deep sea and that the problem might not be got under control. "

About 200 kilometers east of the Mississippi Delta, the sun is reflected on the water, which laps in gentle waves onto the beach of Pascagoula. Birds emerge and chase a passing fishing trawler. A few meters further on, anglers have set up their folding chairs and cast rods. Everything here looks as if the oil spill never happened. John Marquez stands on a jetty a little to one side and watches the goings-on. The tall man in the white shirt is chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association in Mississippi, an association of sport fishermen.

"We had some very good fishing years right after the oil spill. It's hard to say how that came about. The fishery was completely stopped in 2010. So there was no hunting pressure on the populations. We thought maybe that's why there were more fish in the following years. "

Almost 2,000 kilometers of coastline were smeared with oil in the summer of 2010. An oil slick one and a half times the size of the Saarland drifted on the ocean for months. And then within a very short time the oil almost completely disappeared from the scene, recalls John Marquez.

"But last year was one of the worst spotted sea trout fishing years and the worst crab year in nearly 50 years. Now we are very concerned. Are these the consequences of the oil spill that are only now occurring? We watch the environment very closely and hope it is just a coincidence or a seasonal occurrence and not something much more disastrous that comes from the oil spill. "

Oil spills can have long-term consequences. In Alaska, for example, a few years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the herring stocks collapsed out of the blue. To date, they have not recovered. Many people in the Gulf of Mexico fear the same. Here, for example, the bluefin tuna is of enormous importance for the fishermen in the region. It's not just John Marquez who worries about him.

"The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded right at the start of the bluefin tuna breeding season in the northern Gulf of Mexico. "

Ryan Fikes works as a biologist for the National Wildlife Federation in Corpus Christi, Texas.

"The spawning areas were partly oil-covered, so that the larvae there very likely came into contact with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other poisonous compounds. Estimates of how many tuna larvae have been exposed to the oil vary between 12 and 20 percent. At the same time, laboratory studies have shown that components from the oil attack the heart cells of young bluefin tuna and can cause irregular heartbeats and heart attacks. That could mean that fewer juvenile fish survive and the number of adult animals will decrease in the years to come. "

Bluefin tuna are already on the red list of endangered species. If more of them disappear, it could become tight for this species to survive. However, it is not yet known how many larvae and fish the oil from the Deepwater Horizon killed. The same is true of many other animal species. Since the oil spill, for example, dead dolphins have repeatedly been stranded on the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico - significantly more than in the years before the oil spill.

The beaches are white again

But hardly anyone knows how the deaths affect the population. While these questions are being investigated, the answers are still being kept under wraps, says Ryan Fikes. They are intended to be used as evidence in court.

"One of these studies is NRDA, or the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. This is a process by which US federal authorities collect investigations, studies and other evidence for a later federal lawsuit against those who caused the oil spill. To publish the results of these investigations now, could, in the opinion of the US government, influence the outcome of the legal proceedings and endanger a conviction, because the perpetrators naturally work with their own scientists and their own assessments on their defense in order to refute the arguments of the prosecutors. "

In the NRDA process, possible long-term consequences of the disaster are also to be examined. It will therefore take some time before the study results can be used in court and then published.

"We can of course sit down and say this research is being carried out on behalf of the federal government, so its results should also be publicly available. But at the same time, I realize how important it is to be sensitive to this information to ensure that the guilty parties can be held accountable. "

Another civil case has been heard in the federal district court in New Orleans since February 2013. The question there is who is to blame for the accident and how great the damage was, so how much oil has leaked. Judicial experts refer to the process as the most complex legal process in modern history. The United States of America and numerous private individuals are suing BP, Transocean, Haliburton and other companies involved in the oil spill for more than $ 14 billion in damages. A judgment is expected in May 2015 at the earliest. But it is already clear that a lot of money will flow into the region, says the former mayor of Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser.

"And since we are talking about a lot of money, there will also be a lot of people who want to spend that money. I hope and pray that the money goes where the oil really did damage. We need it to rebuild the coast and to help the animals and plants. But there are also people who are attracted by the amount of money and have completely different interests than doing the right thing. We can only hope that doesn't happen. "

Billy Nungesser headed the congregation from 2007 to the end of 2014.

"In the last few years of my tenure, we have negotiated a lot with the people at BP, hoping to find some wise use of the money. Unfortunately that didn't work out. My term of office expired without any agreement. I think that had a lot to do with the lawyers. They often don't benefit from sitting down and working on a solution. "

On the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico you can hardly see the consequences of the disaster today. The beaches are white again, the coastal marshes are swaying in the green silt grass, and only remnants of the oil are left deep in the ground. It looks different in the deep sea.

"The first time we went diving near the Macondo borehole, that was in December 2010 with the manned underwater vehicle Alvin, we were offended. There was nothing down there, no life. Usually worms live on the sea floor, where shrimp, crabs and fish live. Maybe not a lot of fish, but on every dive you will see at least one fish, you will find sea cucumbers and every now and then a large octopus or an eel swims by, there are quite a number of different species of fish. But we saw absolutely nothing during this dive trip. "

But ocean researcher Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia came across mud, and lots of mud. In some places it towered ten meters high and suffocated all life underneath.

The corals have been getting worse from year to year since the oil spill

"Many people did not expect the effects on the deep sea. About 30 percent of the oil from the borehole and all of the gas that escaped never reached the surface of the sea. Instead, the oil swirled through the deep sea in huge swaths. Some of it was broken down by microorganisms , another so diluted that we can no longer detect it. But the third part rained down to the ocean floor and was deposited there. I think no one foresaw the enormous amounts that would be. They can be in a radius today Sampling sediment from nearly 100 kilometers around the borehole and still finding remains of the Macondo oil. "

Oil is actually lighter than water and should rise to the surface. Therefore, it is not yet entirely clear where the enormous amounts of oily mud at the bottom of the sea come from. Samantha Joye suspects that the smallest plants in the sea, the phytoplankton and the microorganisms that break down the oil are responsible for this. If they come into contact with oil, they release both substances, which are slimy and sticky and easily adhere to the oil. Heavy oily lumps could have sunk to the sea floor as a rain of particles.

"The seabed ecosystems have suffered badly from this oily sea snow, and they still do today. I am often asked how long it will take the deep sea to recover from it. It's cold down there, everything grows slower and nothing happens quickly. Therefore, the ecosystems will likely take much longer to recover than a beach or coastal march, for example. Because up there it is very, very warm in summer and in winter it doesn't get as cold as in the deep sea. "

Something else worries Samantha Joye. Large coral banks stretch out on the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico: an important habitat for many fish species. But it is precisely these corals that have been getting worse from year to year since the oil spill.

"The corals are still going downhill to this day, they haven't gotten to the point where we've all seen the effects and they're starting to recover. "

It is possible that the oily mud on the sea floor is being blown up and polluting the corals again and again. That would be a bad sign, and not just for the corals. Because if the mud gets back into the water column through storms or currents, it can also find its way back into the food web and damage life in the deep sea in the long term. It will take years, if not decades, to gauge the full extent of the April 20, 2010 oil spill.