Saturday, July 11, 2015

Five years writing about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and far more remains to be said.

When the Apr. 20, 2010 BP oil spill made the news that evening, this reporter didn't think too much of it. I remember looking away, figuring it was a small fire that would probably end within hours. But that was not to be. It soon became apparent that the deaths of 11 good men who worked on the rig would besmirch BP's name in a way no bad PR ever could. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the oil bled for 87 days despite numerous attempts by Admiral Thad Allen and team to cap the Macondo well. When it was finally shut down July 15, 2010, the spin was that all was well: many of us knew otherwise. Thousands of birds, marine life, marsh areas and humans were impacted in a way no other U.S. environmental disaster's ever pummelled us. On July 10 of that year, I began reporting for Examiner (some call it "blogging") because I wanted to keep covering this story as it happened. As a freelance writer, which I've enjoyed pretty much full-time since 2008, and part-time off and on since college, I nevertheless spend many hours/days/even months waiting for editors to reply to pitches. I knew that after a couple of unsuccessful queries, this story just didn't have time to percolate in the Manhattan offices of busy editors who were looking for angles and news "hooks." By January of 2011, I interviewed Dr. Samantha ("Mandy") Joye, a Univ. of Ga. biogeochemist who made national news for telling it like it was out in the Gulf. She'd been deep diving there long before anyone though of BP other than when they got gas. I felt fortunate to get this noted scientist to talk to me, even if it meant an e-mail conversation. Soon after receiving her answers back, I was in for a surprise: her staff asked if I'd join Justin Gillis of The New York Times, Richard Harris of NPR, and a CNN producer down in Georgia in a couple of weeks to speak about how we could better communicate after disasters such as these, as part of a symposium called "Building Bridges in Crisis." Of course I would, and looking back, it was a definite highlight of my career. Even then, when giving my speech about the dead dolphins, the turtles washing up on shore, the sick people working on the Vessels of Opportunity, I knew that we could easily meet back in a year or two or even 10. I knew the Gulf of Mexico was a mess and this story was far from over. Sadly, I was right. Further, Corexit dispersants doused by the gallon-full and airdropped along the Gulf reached an estimated 1.84 million gallons. These dispersants aren't even used in the very country in which they're manufactured, England; and since the spill, California's successfully passed legislation to block such reactions to spills. (Good timing considering the recent Santa Barbara spill.) In 2012 I would write a story for AARP on Dr. Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who keynoted at the UGA conference. Dr. Earle talked to me at length about the dangers of Corexit, how she spoke before Congress on this, and how "out of sight does not mean out of mind." She knew only too well, as would noted toxicologist Riki Ott, how Corexit sickened the dolphins, turtles and precious other sea creatures and birds in the Gulf, how it made everyone and everything worse. Its only "benefit" was that it kept a lot of the oil from travelling further into the marshes, while along the way choking the life out of fish and birds feeding innocently at Barataria Bay on their morning dispersant-soaked worms. Here are five of what I consider my most impactful posts concerning the wildlife and marine life affected by the BP oil disaster. These stories stand apart from the equally horrific blight that has affected the thousands of Gulf residents, especially those who lived or worked in Zone A (the most affected areas), following the spill. 1. Dr. Joye explains why we owe it to the ecosystem to learn from the oil spill: Dr. Joye was one of the first scientists to speak the truth about what was going on on the sea floor. In further months she'd draw a link between the spill and methane pollution down deep into the water column. In our Jan. 6 e-mail interview, she told me: "NOAA claims that 75 percent of the oil from the blowout is 'gone.' I would argue that a lot of that oil has 'landed on' the bottom…it’s not 'gone' and it’s still having an impact, a very negative one!, on the system. Why is this important? Because we need to know how much oil is down there, where it is and what impacts it’s having. This is critical because understanding/documenting the impacts and the system’s recovery from those impacts is essential for truly understanding the repercussions of this blowout." 2. Hundreds of oil-impacted turtles and dozens of dolphins have perished: When I published this story July 29, just a few months after the spill, we were just beginning to grasp the huge disaster this was and how it affected the beautiful sea creatures who grace the Gulf. I reported that, "Seven hundred seventy-seven dead or injured turtles have been documented to date," according to Oceana. Elizabeth Griffin Wilson, marine wildlife scientist and fisheries campaign manager, told me: “No one really knows how many [turtles have died]. That’s one of the big challenges with sea turtles. Once they’re out there in the water they’re really hard to find.” Of the 777 reported by “Unified Command” – which provides Oceana with a daily estimate of wildlife affected by the spill – 283 of those were collected alive and 494 were dead. 3. Ulcerated blue crabs found in Gulf, at Mississippi Sound: When I published this story, we were just beginning to grasp the huge impact the spill had on the shellfish and other marine creatures in the Gulf. Here it was, over two years after the spill, and Lorrie Williams was taking photos of ulcerated crabs along the beach at Gulf Springs, Miss. Ironically, the photographer was and remains suffering as much as the crab in the photo: she's endured pancreatitis, lung polyps, extreme weight loss and other health effects as a result of her and her husband's work out on the waters. 4. Animals keep dying, so where are the official wildlife reports?: It's now been well documented that we'll never know the exact or even near exact numbers of brown pelicans, herons, and other birds that died as a result of the disaster. At the time I published this, it would have boggled everyone's minds to know that Audubon, a couple years later, would cite that over a million birds had died as a result of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil disaster. 5. BP oil spill 5 years later: NWF cites record numbers of dead turtles, dolphins: The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) reported in "Five Years and Counting: Gulf Wildlife in the Aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster," 20 different species have been gravely impacted by the spill. (Note, these are just the ones in the report.). Namely, dolphins on the Louisiana coast were found dead at four times historic rates in 2014, and there is increasing evidence that these ongoing deaths are connected to the Apr. 20, 2010 BP oil spill; 2010 and 2011 had the lowest numbers of young red snapper seen in the eastern Gulf fishery since 1994; coral colonies in five separate locations in the Gulf—three in the deep sea and two in shallower waters—are showing signs of oil and or some mixture of oil-and-Corexit damage; and prior to the spill, the number of endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests found annually was accelerating, but since 2010 the nests found annually have declined. BP recently settled in principle with the U.S. Dept. of Justice for $18.7 billion for breaching the Clean Water Act and Oil Pollution Act; this is irrespective of the multi-billion-dollar criminal fines it incurred and anything resulting from claimants' medical and other damages.
April 20, 2010 Source: (Via Wikimedia Commons Images) U.S. Coast Guard - 100421-G-XXXXL- Deepwater Horizon fire Author Unknown