On Fifth Anniversary of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Not All Is Well in the Gulf

Posted April 22, 2015

MP3 Interview with Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist and winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


This year, April 20 marked the fifth anniversary of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and spilled an estimated 5 million barrels – or 210 million gallons – of oil into Gulf waters. The oil gushed for almost three months before being capped on July 15 and was finally sealed on Sept. 19, 2010.

BP says it has spent approximately $28 billion thus far on cleanup, early restoration work and making claims payments to local residents for damages. The oil giant is now awaiting a federal district court ruling on how much more it will be mandated to pay in Clean Water Act penalties resulting from the spill.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist and winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant. Her Subra Company, based in New Iberia, Louisiana, provides technical assistance to community groups and to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network dealing with environmental human health issues. Here she says, despite the resumption of deepwater drilling in the Gulf six months after the start of the disaster, many impacts continue to linger both in the health of the ecosystem and the well-being of its human inhabitants.

WILMA SUBRA: As a result of the BP disaster five years ago, the Gulf is contaminated with the crude oil that BP released into the environment, its sub-surface in the Gulf, and it continues to wash on shore every single day in the form of tar balls, mats and strings. And then from a human health issue, a large number of people along the Gulf Coast, as well as the cleanup workers, have been severely impacted by exposure to both the crude oil from BP and the dispersant, Corexit, and their health is severely impacted and will be impacted for a very, very long time. They have medical conditions that range from cardio-vascular impacts to liver and kidney, loss of memory, and they are getting little to no assistance because BP was allowed to fund primary care to the exclusion of care for the health impacts directly associated with exposure to the BP crude and the dispersant. These people have not been able to apply and qualify for disability; they've lost their medical insurance so they have nowhere to go to get the kind of medical care they desperately need, and then in a lot of cases, they've lost their homes, so they are absolutely destitute.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I understand that a lot of the impacts can't be seen from the surface, but that there's still a lot of damage in the water column itself and to wildlife there.

WILMA SUBRA: Right. The Gulf has been impacted severely by the BP crude, primarily because it was mixed with dispersant at the well-head as well as on the surface, and so the dispersant was used to sink the BP crude and its sub-surface in the water column as well as contaminating the sediment, and therefore, the benthic organisms in the bottom sediment and the organisms throughout the water column are being negatively impacted and then have an impact on the food chain.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I know the seafood from the Gulf was deemed by the government to be safe relatively soon after the well was capped, and BP, of course, runs these ads on TV showing pristine beaches like everything's back to normal. What do the people who live and work there say?

WILMA SUBRA: When you survey them, they tell you about the decrease in catch, so their livelihood has been severely impacted, and then they also talk about the physical impacts it's having on some of the organisms such as the crabs and the shrimp and the fin fish. And when you ask them how long do they think it's going to take for the Gulf to recover, they talk in terms of 20, 30, to 50 years.

BETWEEN THE LINES: President Obama put a hold on deepwater offshore drilling after the BP disaster, which he lifted in October of that same year, 2010. So do folks down there feel like the situation is another accident waiting to happen?

WILMA SUBRA: We are observing a lot of what's going on in the Gulf, and we're seeing spills and leaks occurring on a daily basis. so in addition to this very large event, there are these much smaller events that are ongoing. And the potential for this kind of accident to occur again is there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you sum up the general attitude of residents on the Gulf coast toward deepwater drilling? I know it's jobs, but do they feel like it's decimating the other main source of jobs, which is fishing and shellfishing?

WILMA SUBRA: Communities along the Gulf Coast are intertwined with oil field workers. For the fishing community, their brothers and their cousins work for the oil and gas industry, and if the fishing community starts speaking out in opposition to oil and gas development because of what it's done to their resources, they are afraid that their brothers or their cousins will lose their jobs, so you don't hear an outcry from the fishing community. These communities are very resilient, and as a result they will do the best they can and live with the situation that's been dealt to them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I'm trying to put the BP disaster in context with the pre-existing destruction of the wetlands in the Gulf, especially off the coast of Louisiana. In my previous trips to New Orleans and the bayous, I learned that every 45 minutes, an amount of land the size of a football field sinks into the Gulf. And a lot of that is caused by the oil and gas industry itself, with the thousands of miles of channels it's dug in the wetlands to facilitate its operations. Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a proposal to restore the wetlands there that would have cost $14 billion, but Congress didn't fund it because it was "too expensive." Now we're talking about many multiples of that to restore the land and clean up the Gulf. And BP has been required to pay billions. Can that be used for restoration?

WILMA SUBRA: So the terms of the BP settlement are not very favorable to the fishing communities and the people who have lost their jobs as a result of the environmental impact of the BP disaster. And the resources that BP is being required to put toward the restoration is just a small drop in the bucket compared to what is really needed for coastal restoration. So we have to be very careful to use the BP money for things specifically impacted by the BP disaster, but knowing that we still need a large chunk of money in order to restore our coasts.

For more information, visit the website of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network at leanweb.org.

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