Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill will impact people, communities, environment for decades

by Melanie Duchin

April 28, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster unfolding before our eyes. Eleven lives were lost in the initial explosion, and that incalculable loss is compounded daily as oil continues to flow from the wellhead despite efforts on the part of BP and TransOcean to quell it. No one can accurately predict how long it will take to cap the leaking wellhead: it could be a matter of days, weeks, months. And regardless of how long it takes to staunch the flow of oil, the impacts of the oil spill on the people, economy and environment of Gulf coast states will persist for decades.

Melanie documents impacts of oil spill in 2004
Documenting the impacts of the Selendang Ayu spill in Unalaska, Alaska in December 2004.

Here in Alaska, the impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill that took place more than 21 years ago are still being felt by people, communities, and the environment. You can still see a “bathtub ring” of Exxon’s oil in Prince William Sound, and you don’t have to dig very deep to find oil lingering below rocks on beaches. Exxon Valdez oil is still being ingested by wildlife more than two decades after the spill, and many species have yet to recover.  

The phrase “oil spill clean up” is an oxymoron. In most cases, the lion’s share of spilled oil is not removed from the environment, it is dispersed, diluted, burned, or it sinks in globs, or it is left behind in one form or another to wreak havoc on the environment for years to come.

And let’s not forget the issue of corporate accountability — ExxonMobil hunkered down for the long haul, using every trick in the book to appeal, stall, and delay court cases seeking accountability or damages from the spill. In fact, one-fifth of the plaintiffs who sought damages for the Exxon Valdez spill passed away before the case finally went to the US Supreme Court.  

Regardless of where the fault lies with the Deepwater Horizon — BP, TransOcean, or some other entity — people who have lost loved ones or their livelihoods because of the spill will have to fight a long, uphill battle for recompense and justice.

On a related note, just last year BP and TransOcean aggressively opposed new safety regulations proposed by the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling. The impetus for MMS’s new regulations was a study that found numerous accidents occurring in the industry.

The tragedy we’re witnessing right now is but the latest in a long line of oil spills, be they from pipelines, tankers, or exploratory drill rigs like the Deepwater Horizon. Each accident brings with it Congressional inquiries, finger pointing, scathing editorials and public outrage, yet we as a nation are no closer to weaning ourselves from oil than we were after any other big oil spill. So long as we remain dependent on oil we will continue to pay the price in human lives, as well as in environmental and economic damage.

The Deepwater Horizon was lauded as a state-of-the-art “marvel of modern technology” when it was first deployed in 2001. The rig was able to drill at depths that were unthinkable a mere decade before. Let’s keep that in mind as the President, Congress, and oil companies propose expanding oil drilling in US waters — there is no technological fix when it comes to oil exploration, drilling and transportation. You can take action now to tell President Obama that it’s time to break our addiction to oil.

Oil will spill, period. And it can’t be adequately “cleaned up.” Let’s hope the legacy of this disaster is not one of more oil drilling and spills, but of a meaningful shift away from our dependence on oil in order to protect human life, the economy, and the environment.

Images from April 28, 2010

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