Big Spill

While BP’s All But Done With It,
Wildlife in the Gulf’s Still Reeling

Two years ago today, the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig operated by subcontractors working for BP Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded, caught fire and killed eleven people, in what became the U.S.’s biggest environmental disaster. It took 87 days for the giant British concern to cap the well, after an estimated five million barrels of oil had already spilled into once pristine gulf waters.
BP was forced to set aside a $20 billion fund to cover the cleanup efforts, which were undertaken along with U.S.’s environmental agencies and local organizations, and pay for reparations. Such amount’s still to be fully spent and legal battles still rage over who should pay what and to whom.
It may take years before we know for sure the true extent of the damage to wildlife, fisheries and the ecosystem the spill has caused. But disturbing reports about deformed shrimp and lung-damaged dolphins are no comfort for those who’ve been fighting for years against the use of fossil fuels, exactly to prevent what seems now statistically inevitable: another ecological disaster.
It won’t be easy. And it’s not just because BP, despite settling billions of dollars of claims from the spill, has again asked a U.S. judge for yet another delay to resolve remaining disputes. But energy policies in the U.S. and pretty much every other big western economy are still in large part controlled by the oil and gas industry.
Particularly in the U.S., such fight to end our oil dependency has been disheartening, and the Obama administration’s done less than expected supporting research of alternative energy sources. On the contrary, lobbying for the latest fad, fracking or large-scale natural gas exploration, continues to enjoy a free pass in Washington, despite being linked to increasing man-made earthquakes.
Startingly, since the catastrophic spill, BP’s heaped record profits, including $26 billion only last year, according to Bloomberg. Much of this profit can be traced to the fact that it became the U.S. Defense Department’s biggest fuel supplier, as it’s received half of the total $14.7 billion worth of fuel contracts that the Pentagon awarded in fiscal 2011.
Though government agencies can suspend or disqualify companies from receiving contracts if they have committed wrongdoing, there’s no signs that the Pentagon has even considered the billions of dollars in pending suits that the world’s six-largest oil company by market value is still to settle. Defense contracts, by the way, are major factors in our aforementioned dependency.

The mammals seem to have gotten the brunt of the oil spill’s worst water pollution impact in the gulf. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report found that many were underweight, anaemic and suffering from lung and liver disease. The two-year study focused on a group of 32 dolphins, all but one still alive when caught in Barataria Bay, off the coast of Louisiana.
Half of them had low levels of a hormone that helps mammals regulate their metabolism and immune systems, while coping with stress. Such hormone deficiency, albeit not definitely linked to the spill, may reduce their survival prospects, and it’s a consistent indication of “oil exposure to other mammals”.
The study is among several others that gauged the impact of the oil spill on marine wildlife and local environment. Some of such studies found signs of oil contamination on both insect populations on the nearby coastline and deep water corals and zooplankton, microscopic organisms at the bottom of the ocean food chain, as well as areas still devoid of vegetation.

Perhaps the most visibly disturbing signs of long-term damage caused by the spill in the Gulf of Mexico are recent photos that show eyeless shrimp, sore-afflicted fish and crabs without claws or hard shells. Such bizarre deformities are becoming common in seafood from the gulf, according to Louisiana State University’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences.
The most likely direct culprit for such horrible mutations are the dispersants, used to help dilute the oil and that are known to be mutagenic. Since shrimp have a short life-cycle, from April 2010 till now there has been two to three full generations of seafood, born with chemicals already in their genetic makeup.
The implications to the food chain are obvious. The initial impact was the radical decrease in the seafood harvest of the area, which had a domino-effect on the local fishing industry. But the most serious risks are starting just about now, as much of these populations are heading into our own food products.
From mild symptoms, such as headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, chest pains, to more serious respiratory illnesses, hypertension, neurotoxic effects, cardiac arrhythmia and cardiovascular damage, we’re all vulnerable to being affected by what happened two years ago. Plus, such chemicals can disrupt human embryo growth and development, and are carcinogenic.

In the weeks following the spill, while images of the fire and sky-rocketing clouds of smoke were still dominant on the news coverage, it became clear that much of the long-term environmental damage to the Gulf of Mexico would never be completely known. That’s when the first pictures of such damage on birds began to emerge.
Along with the salt marshes and wetlands soaked in oil, the dead fish and the chunks of tar that began washing ashore the gulf coastlines, the pictures of pelicans coated in black oil were arguably the most dramatic. As armies of volunteers spent days and nights rescuing those still alive and cleaning them by hand, it was clear that most of them wouldn’t make it.
There was, of course, the injured and dead sea turtles and whales, but no other animal population was more massively devastated by the spill than the birds. In less than six months, over seven thousand of them had been retrieved, most of if showing severe signs of oiling, and to this day, an unknown number has disappeared.
Their brutal demise is hard to quantify, in terms of how it’ll impact the survival of other species that depend on birds for their own survival. But as the chemical dispersants, which helped dilute the oil from the water, have their own secondary, damaging impact, so do the avian population, and no study to determine whether which, if any, bird species has been most affected, has been done so far.

It’s the impact of the disaster of the Gulf of Mexico on us, though, or lack thereof, that concerns us the most. Two years ago, while images of fire and destruction, of dead animals, and blackened coastlines were still coming in through our electronic gadgets, it was hard to imagine a future when we’d be still talking about oil drilling and risky gas exploration procedures.
Yet, regardless of how devastating the spill may turn out to be on final tallies, BP and other big oil giants have since grown even bigger; the Obama administration has been all but ineffective about alternative energy policies, and for most populations not directly affected by it, the disaster has already become a fading memory, steadily receding toward the background.
But even if that doesn’t do justice to the tireless efforts of environmentalists and organizations engaged in preventing it from happening, the sad fact is that even the perfectly plausible possibility of another spill to happen may not be enough to shock us back into awareness and to engage in some form of environmental activism.
It’s easy to either believe that nothing can be done about it, or that someone else’s already doing our bidding for us. It’s much harder to face private security forces, such as those BP’s used to fence in its temporary field headquarters in the gulf in the aftermath of the spill, or to pursue long-term goals for changing the system, neither of such is as sexy as many would hope.
There’s also a huge political gap between what happens in the field and the powers that be in Washington. The current crop of elected officials and/or politicians have been, for the most part, oblivious to environmental initiatives of any kind. The successful campaign against the somewhat related Keystone XL oil pipeline project was typical, in what it was conducted solely by grassroots movements.
So much representatives and senators of both parties have distanced themselves from such efforts, which did not prevent them from posing at celebratory photo Ops, that the project remains alive and may still be approved by the U.S. Congress. Unless, of course, something big happens again.

No wonder that it is so, for oil and gas lobby in DC is one of the most powerful, and does exert a disproportionate influence on setting policies and preventing environmental protection measures from even reaching the congress floor. We’d hate to end this post going back to that old one-note samba about campaign finance and how it’s destroying our democracy and so on and so forth.
Instead, let’s just (wistfully) hope that we won’t need another disaster of the magnitude, or even lesser than that, of the one that may have doomed marine life, the marshlands and the coastlines in the Gulf of Mexico for years to come. That’s when one would insert an ironic commentary of shortcomings of our species, or the decline of the U.S.’s moral values.
But we’ll spare you from that. If little action, and new policies, have been implemented in these past two years, a lot of words have already being spoken about it all, and we’re talking about today only. One thing you can do today, though, to mark the occasion: make a list of all those who’ve been negligent, if not downright guilty, about the disaster.
Include all of them and keep it in a safe place. Next time they come running asking for votes and/or your patronage, you can tell each and everyone of them exactly what they should all do with their requests. The survivors of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, people, animals and plants, will certainly benefit from your support.

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