5th Anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – a Comprehensive Look Back at the Worst Offshore Oil Spill in U.S. History on its 5th Anniversary

Article Courtesy: pnj.com | Kimberly Blair and from staff reports | Originally published April 21, 2015 | Please click here for original article.


Above: A shrimp boat uses booms to collect spilled crude in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, Louisiana, on May 5, 2010, some two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP Photo)

On the anniversary of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, Kimberly Blair, Pensacola News Journal waterways reporter, hosted a round-table discussion with local experts in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the recovery process.

Documented here are the economic, health, tourism, wildlife and ecological impacts from the spill, as well as a report card on the recovery process, vignettes of the members of the oil rig whose lives were lost to the explosion, and a recap of the forum.

Uncertainty lingers 5 years after oil spill

On April 20, 2010, Pensacola area residents were stunned by the fiery explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that claimed the lives of 11 workers.

We had no clue, however, that the explosion more than 100 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico would derail our promising tourism season, wipe out jobs dependent on those visitor dollars, slick our sugar-white beaches with oil and sicken and kill an unknown number of marine and wildlife.

As the days and weeks unfolded and it became clearer we were facing the largest offshore disaster in U.S. history, doomsday predictions and visions of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, fueled our fears. Panic set in as an oil sheen, followed by foamy orange-colored mousse, noxious fumes, and then sticky, rust-colored crude inched toward our coast for weeks on the ebb and flow of tides, currents and wind.

Monday marks five years since the oil rig exploded unleashing a gusher of crude that spewed into the Gulf relentlessly for 87 days. Some of the 3.19 million barrels fouled an estimated 68,000 square miles of Gulf waters and nearly 500 miles of coastline from Florida to Louisiana.

Sure, there’s been progress. Tourism has rebounded. Employment is up. We’re more aware and focused on how fragile our environment is and how connected it is to our economy and quality of life.

But when it comes to the impacts to the Gulf ecosystem, scientists researching the spill say there are still many unknowns. That has a slew of national and state environmental watchdog groups, scientists and local officials marking “five years after the disaster” by sharply criticizing BP’s controversial ad campaign declaring, thanks to its response and restoration efforts, “The Gulf is returning to pre-spill conditions…”

They’re also rebuffing claims by Laura Folse, executive vice president of BP Gulf Coast restoration organization, in the company’s five-year report, that: “Areas that were affected are recovering and data BP has collected and analyzed to date do not indicate a significant long-term impact to the population of any Gulf species.”

State and federal Natural Resource Damage assessment trustees said in response to BP’s claims, “It’s inappropriate as well as premature for BP to reach conclusions about impacts from the spill before the completion of the assessment.”

The trustees charged with the ongoing process of assessing the oil spill damage further stated that “BP misrepresents and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn’t support its claims and attempts to obscure our role as caretakers of the critical resources damaged by the spill.”

Officials with Ocean Conservancy, which tracks and digests all the scientific studies dedicated to the oil spill, say studies continue to point to trouble for people and wildlife throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s premature to say the Gulf is not ruined,” said Bethany Kraft, Ocean Conservancy’s director of Gulf Restoration Program. “I don’t think it’s ruined, but I don’t think we can pick up our data sheets and move on. I think BP is being disingenuous in saying everything is OK.”

W.A. “Buck” Lee, Santa Rosa Island Authority executive director, is also not buying BP’s campaign.

“They have TV ads saying we will make this right, then they would be in court trying to overturn a judge’s ruling that they had to make it right,” he said.

A lot of businesses, both on the beach and in the mainland, still are fighting to be paid claims for loss revenue as a result of the oil spill, he said. While no one is arguing the fact that BP tourism grants helped revive our economy, Lee is disturbed that BP would take any credit for helping to restore the Gulf.

“That would be like me setting a house on fire and then running to get a hose and putting it out,” he said. “Then saying; ‘Look what I did. I saved the house.’

Jury still out

Five years later, it’s clear the legacy of the oil spill still exists, Kraft said.

Moreover, it is not time to let our guard down, she said. This is the time to push forward with continued monitoring of our ecosystem and identify what long-term studies need to be done.

“Before the oil spill, we didn’t have data to tell us the health of the Gulf before 2010,” she said. “BP has to bring the Gulf back to the state before the oil spill. But if you don’t have a baseline, it’s difficult to prove your case.”

It’s imperative to continually take the pulse of the Gulf, she said. “Just like you and I go to the doctor, and he takes your vitals. We need to observe and link what’s happening to the oil spill.”

What’s gleaned from that science will allow us to better respond and “be prepared the next time, God forbid, it happens again,” she said.

Underscoring her concern, Kraft pointed out that on April 1, the day before she spoke to the Pensacola News Journal, an oil processing platform in the Bay of Campeche caught fire, reportedly killing four workers and injuring 45 others. Officials with the Pemex-operated rig, reported that an oil spill was avoided because the fire was on a processing platform — not an active rig.

Christian Wagley, a coastal scientist who is intrinsically involved in the oil spill restoration process in Pensacola, supports the use of BP fine and restoration dollars for long-term scientific studies. If we’ve learned anything from the Alaskan Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, he said, is that injuries from an oil spill can surface years and even decades later.

“Things tend to happen very slowly in the natural world most of the time,” he said. “It’s far, far too soon to make any broad judgments about the health of the Gulf and recovery of the Gulf, as far as the oil spill goes. Sometimes things take time to work their way through the ecosystem. And we have to allow time for those to happen and carefully watch, monitor, study and document any changes that happen.”

For the most part, the public may not see any lingering impacts of the oil spill, aside from the tarballs and mats still still showing up on our beaches.

“A lot of things are happening in the deep water and far from shore and may be internal to an organism and things that are very difficult for the public to see and get their hands around,” he said. “That’s why we need to fund good, scientific research.”

For instance, NOAA Fisheries and Stanford University scientists, who picked up where scientists left off studying the toxicity of oil on herring in Prince William Sound, studied the impacts of BP oil on bluefin tuna. Their spawning grounds in the Gulf were oiled during the spill, and the scientists found that the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs in oil, block ion channels in the heart cells of developing fish, which results in slow and irregular heart beats.

They believe the impacts would be the same on other fish species.

“The heart is one of the first organs to appear, and it starts beating before it’s completely built,” John Incardona, a developmental biologist with the NOAA Fisheries ecotoxicology lab in Seattle stated in the study. “Anything that alters heart rhythm during embryonic development will likely impact the final shape of the heart and the ability of the adult fish to survive in the wild.”

Hold BP accountable

As BP faces billions of dollars in penalties — Ocean Conservancy, Audubon and many others, including Keith Wilkins, Escambia County director of community and environment, say it’s imperative to not let our guard down now and continue to hold BP to its promises.

“BP promised to make things right for the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy,” Kraft said. “Five years on, the phrase I most closely associate with BP is ‘broken promises.’ BP needs to pay the penalties it owes, and stop trying to discredit the hard-working Gulf scientists who are doing important research on the effects of the oil disaster.”

BP has argued for reduced penalties and capped penalties, citing reports that the Gulf is recovering while minimizing the impacts. The oil giant has pointed out how early restoration and tourism grants it agreed to pay in 2011 help kick start that recovery process while damage assessment is conducted.

Wilkins acknowledges there has been progress, “Tourism has rebounded and we can get on our beaches and go swimming.”

He’s worried BP won’t be held accountable by the courts for the full cost of the of oil spill and yet-to-be-determined damage.

Fueling his concerns is BP’s broken promise to the county to keep cleanup up workers and oil spill monitors on the beaches until there was no visible oil or tar left.

“The end points we agreed upon have not been met,” he said. “We’re still collecting several pounds of oil per week with our volunteer effort. We did expect them (BP) to still be engaged.”

The U.S. Coast Guard-led oil spill monitoring was halted in 2013. Florida Department of Environmental Protection took over the monitoring job but ended it in December 2014 for a lack of money.

Since then, Emerald Coast Surfrider launched a grassroots citizens monitoring program with the help of county and U.S. Coast Guard.

“My major concern going forward is that in some type of settlement with the courts, BP will be let off the hook for its NRDA responsibility,” Wilkins said. “Their NRDA responsibilities are to actually restore the Gulf for the spill and compensate for the damage. That is where the sciences will play out. The generational impacts to our fisheries and ecosystem of the Gulf is yet to be determined.”

If our fisheries fail or have a hiccup from unforeseen impacts of the oil spill, Wilkins and others say, our beaches buzzing with visitors and our restaurants packed with seafood lovers would suffer too.

“We live in a region where the environment and economy are intrinsically linked,” Kraft said. “And taking care of your resources is critical. If you like to eat seafood, go to the beach, fish — you have to take care of the ecosystem. It’s just common sense.”

Oil spill report card: Where are we now?

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where are we now?

Marine and wildlife

Impact: It didn’t take long after the oil spill before horrific images of dolphins, pelicans and sea turtles, as well as sick and dying fish, coated in oil were broadcast around the world. We knew immediately the impact to our marine life, wildlife and fisheries would be huge. To this day, scientists are still calculating the damage.

What we know so far is grim. Ocean Conservancy has a four-page list of the marine life and coastal wildlife impacted by the oil spill that shows: An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 coastal birds died; and an estimated 200,000 offshore birds died as a result of the oil spill. Tens of thousands of sea turtles were located within the area of surface oil and of the 1,149 of the oiled turtles collected in the first year after the spill, 613 died.

Today: NOAA scientists are still digging into the cause or causes of high number of dolphin deaths in the areas of the Gulf most impacted by the oil spill. So far, 1,050 marine mammals — mostly bottlenose dolphins — stranded and died between April 30, 2010 and April 6, 2014. The deaths are continuing. Calculating the exact toll on marine mammals has been difficult, because only those that wash up on beaches or collected from the Gulf can be counted.

Scientists have discovered that even low levels of oil pollution can damage the developing hearts of fish embryos and larvae, reducing the likelihood those fish will survive. This raises questions about the future generations of fish populations.

Research also found red snapper had a lower recruitment rate in 2011 and 2010. Lab experiments found oil and dispersant were more toxic to oysters than oil alone.

Our beaches: The oil spill couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Shorebird and sea turtle nesting season was kicking off. Nesting birds were not only facing danger from the oil, their nesting sites were invaded by helicopters and the army of oil spill cleanup workers and volunteers and media that poured onto our beaches in advance of the oil. Parents abandoned their nests. Some of those endangered and threatened shorebird populations today are struggling to rebound faced with setbacks from stormy weather, predators and vehicles. The National Seashore and Audubon Florida, however, have received BP early restoration dollars to step up efforts to protect nesting sites. Sometimes that protection is focused on a single surviving fledgling. These measures, including recruiting more volunteers and beefing up public education, have resulted in a few successes, including the skimmer nesting site on the Navarre Beach causeway and a few sites on Pensacola Beach.

Pros: One positive outcome of the oil spill said Caroline Stahala, Panhandle program manager for Audubon Florida, is in the increased public awareness about our coastal wildlife. This has resulted in recruiting a network of thousands of coastal stewards and more volunteers focused on protecting shorebirds, sea turtles and beach mice.

Challenges: Steve Lynch, Florida Audubon Society chair, urges all residents to stay involved in the Gulf Restoration process by attending meetings and communicating with their public officials to make sure the penalties from the Gulf spill go to true ecosystem recovery.


Pre-BP: Tourism season in 2010 was shaping up to be a record-breaker with consumer confidence rebounding following the housing bust, recession and our area finally turning the corner on the slow and steady recovery from the 2004-2005 hurricanes.

Immediate impact:

As soon as 24-hour media coverage made it clear BP’s crude was slowly making its way to our shores, tourists quickly canceled hotel and vacation rental reservations all along Northwest Florida beaches.

By June, Escambia County lodging revenue dropped 14.7 percent from the same period in 2009, and eventually tourist-dependent businesses reported 50-80 percent drop in revenue for June, July and August, a period that typically accounts for 58 percent of the annual tourist activity, according to a Visit Pensacola report on the oil spill. When business at beach restaurants and shops dropped off, seasonal employees lost jobs.

Today: Tourism is back on track and even hitting record numbers. Last year ended on a high note with tourists development taxes hitting $6,132,034, nearly double what was collected — $3,587,277 — in 2010.

Visit Pensacola president Steve Hayes and other tourism officials partially credit the oil spill for the uptick in tourism for a number of reasons:

New visitors discovered we had white sand beaches thanks to international media coverage of the oil spill and BP’s media campaign urging visitors to return to the coast as the oil was being removed.

BP’s infusion of $30 million in tourism grants divided among the seven Northwest Florida counties to promotions, advertising and incentives to attract visitors boosted tourism budgets for three years.

Uniting tourism officials in Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach and Pensacola on a singular mission of restoring tourism instead of each one focusing on their area only. It’s a partnership that persists today.

“BP dollars allowed folks to do things they probably would not have done before because the resources were not there,” Hayes said. “The silver lining is people heard about us for the first time. It was a nasty way to hear about us. It allowed us to show unity on one message and create a major buzz.”

Pros: Rod Lewis, an economic analyst, crunched the 2002-2014 bed tax numbers and discovered an interesting trend. The post-spill recovery combined with the post-recession recovery drove growth in bed-tax revenues, which exceeded growth rates during the period leading up to the Great Recession, he said. The recovery has probably driven the growth past the point that it would have been had the Great Recession and the oil spill never happened. To demonstrate this point, let’s assume that neither event happened and that bed tax revenue continued to grow from 2007 forward at a healthy 7.3 percent annual rate. If this were the case, total (2 percent seasonally adjusted) collections in 2014 would have been $4.2 million, which is just shy of the $4.3 million that was actually reported. The tourism economy, as measured by a major barometer, has actually grown past where it would have been had neither event ever happened. Although this is a debatable way to look at the numbers, it demonstrates the overwhelming strength of the recovery in the wake of the recession and the spill, he said.

Cons: BP windfall of tourism dollars has dried. We have to stay vigilant in promotions to attract tourists.

“We can’t say we’re up an X amount percent so we don’t have to do as much,” he said. “Northwest Florida competes amongst ourselves for summer business and we’re competing with South and Central Florida. It’s time to keep the pedal to the floor.”


Impact: Seafood consumers were warned to not eat the seafood until tests could be done to ensure it was safe to consume. Even though state and federal seafood agencies quickly declared that seafood safe, people today are still leery. Some people still avoid Gulf and bay-caught seafood. Many people still ask, “Is it safe?”

Today: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spent the first three years after the oil spill conducting 59,668 analysis on 3,693 samples of Florida seafood including finfish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, clams and lobster for possible oil contamination. Laboratory testing showed that Florida seafood products were safe and had not been affected by the oil spill.

Many scientists studying the impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf, including Wade Jeffrey, a University of West Florida marine scientist and scientist with the National Institute of Health, are convinced the seafood is safe. And in all of the oil spill related research Ocean Conservancy has reviewed, it has not seen anything that points to Gulf seafood being unfit to eat.

Con: When it comes to East Bay and Escambia Bay oysters, there’s still few to be had on the commercial market. The beds died off a few years ago. There was speculation that the oil spill and dispersant was contributing to the die-off. Cal Bodenstein, a Santa Rosa County fisherman and member of the county’s RESTORE Act council, however, said the BP oil spill had nothing to do with the die-off.

Over harvesting, illegal harvesting and too much rain and high salinity are all being blamed on the die off. A state plan to replenish beds with clutch on which oysters attach to is in the works. Bodenstein says he’s confident the oysters will come back strong in five years.


Impact: Our tourism and seafood industry sectors of our economy took a beating in the days following the BP oil spill.

Data alone, bed tax and sales tax revenues and employment figures don’t tell the complete story. The effects of lost revenue and lost income from workers in those industries rippled through the economy, Pensacola economist Rick Harper said.

Compounding the impact, the oil spill hit just as we were entering our peak tourism season, when many tourist-sensitive business count on the four months of strong revenue to get them through the slower, leaner months. And it hit just as people were making spring and summer travel plans.

The spill, “effectively wiped out tourism activity for the summer,” Harper said. It impacted revenues not easily calculated in the data as tourism related, such as the summer beach wedding business, fishing and seafood sales, and even housing and condominium sales. Potential buyers looking at relocating to the coast may have decided to put that decision off a year or two, Harper said.

Today: In the last two to three years, employment, tourism and related tourism sales have been ticking up. In 2009 for the months of May, June and July, retails sales in the two-county area were $247.2 million. After the oil spill in April 2010, sales ticked down in May, June and July from 2009 to $231.3 million. Retail sales, however, nearly doubled for those same months in 2014, to $388.9 million.

Cons: Attorneys and economists, however, say many claims business owners and workers filed with the Gulf Recovery Fund, established by BP to reimburse people economically injured by the oil spill, has not been paid.

Nearly 87,000 claims have been submitted from Florida, according to data on the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center. Of the 7,202 claims have been submitted in Escambia County as of April, 16, 2,572 have received payments to the tune of $107,344,180. Of the 2,519 claims submitted in Santa Rosa County, 878 have qualified for payment totaling $28,714,108. (A majority of claimants have received some type of notification that their claims have been denied, are incomplete or have been offered payments.)

So far, for the five Gulf States, $5.046 billion in payments have been made. Deepwater Horizon Claims Administration, agency spokesman Nick Gagliano, says there is no cap on the amount of claims BP will face paying. With a new deadline for filing on June 8, he expects it will take two years to process all claims.

If all those claims were paid — both government and individuals — we’d see greater economic recovery, they say. More businesses might be making capital improvements, expanding or hiring more employees.

Deadline: Levin Papantonio environmental attorney Brian Barr is urging anyone who believes they have had an economic loss as a result of the oil spill to file a claim before the deadline of June 8. Nearly half of the Pensacola area businesses that are eligible to file claims have not. The Levin firm and others in the region are part a network of firms assisting people with those claims.


Impact: Many people who came in contact with the toxic fumes and crude during the oil spill or who were exposed to the dispersant complained of nausea, headaches, dizzy spells, coughs and a host of other health issues.

Response: In 2010, the National Institute of Health mobilized to conduct the largest oil spill study ever, called the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study (GuLF STUDY). That study is ongoing and is evaluating 33,000 oil spill cleanup workers for 10 years. NIEHS is also providing $25 million for Gulf coast universities to research the health of residents in their area, including pregnant women and children.

Preliminary findings

Oil spill cleanup workers reported increased physical symptoms, including cough and wheezing, and mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, compared to non-oil spill workers.

Exposure levels were higher for those working closest to the spill and during the active leak. Many of the measurements taken on land were at or close to normal exposure levels.

A person’s social environment may have an impact on their ability to cope with disasters or negative health outcomes. For example, individuals who have strong social support systems, or networks of families, friends and neighbors who can offer psychological, physical and financial support tend to be more resilient and able to cope and adapt to multiple stressors in post-disaster situations, according to a NIEHS statement.

Clinical exams: 1,000 people have received clinical exams from GuLF STUDY partners at the Health Sciences Centers at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, and Louisiana State University in New Orleans. The clinical research exams include lung function and nervous system tests, and screenings for diabetes and cholesterol.

Lesson learned: As a result of the 2010 oil spill, NIEHS worked with the National Library of Medicine, also part of NIH, and other agencies to develop the NIH Disaster Research Response Project. Key elements of this project include publicly accessible field-tested data collection tools, research protocols, training materials and exercises, and development of a network of trained research responders. The goal is to respond more quickly to collect vital health data early in the response. And to collect samples of air, water, and other materials and contaminants.

Next step

Researchers want to conduct clinical exams for about 3,000 more volunteers, and complete phone interviews with the remainder of the study participants in the next year. To participate, go to https://gulfstudy.nih.gov/en/index.html.

Oil spill restoration

Pre-BP: Our beaches from Perdido Key to Navarre Beach before the oil spill were so pristine the quartz crystal sand sang under our bare feet as we tromped through it.

One would have been hard pressed to find a tar ball or oil pollution on our beaches or in our waterways. Conservation efforts were paying off with endangered species rebounding and thriving. Our economy was slowly gaining ground after back-to-back impacts —the housing bust, 2004-05 hurricanes, and the recession. The last thing we needed was another disaster.

Immediate impact: Our economy felt the impacts of the oil spill almost immediately. By June, it was clear our coastal environment and the creatures that lived and thrived in it were in trouble. All along the impacted areas scientists began taking stock of the damage the oil spill was inflicting through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, or NRDA. The assessment is complex and, in the case of an oil spill as large as the Deepwater spill, will take years.

Today: BP says it has spent $1.3 billion on 240 NRDA scientific studies. In 2011 it paid $1 billion to the five Gulf States, Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to begin restoration while scientists conducted the assessment.

So far, Florida has received $175 million of that money to fund 57 projects, of which, 49 percent are environmental restoration and 51 percent are recreational projects. Locally, the money has been spent on dozens of projects such as dune restoration on Pensacola Beach, renovations and construction of boat ramps in Escambia County, Perdido Key boardwalk improvements, National Seashore ferry boats, sea turtle and shore bird conservation programs. More money has been earmarked for a fish hatchery in downtown Pensacola and asphalt cleanup in the seashore, and Navarre Beach dune walkovers and improving recreational opportunities on Escribano Point.

More money: Millions more dollars are expected to come our way once a New Orleans judge determines the amount of penalties BP should pay under the RESTORE Act and the Oil Spill Pollution Act litigation is finalized. Escambia County’s share of RESTORE dollars is estimated be $100 million to $150 million. Santa Rosa’s is estimated to be $20 million to $60 million.

Pros: Christian Wagley, who serves on Escambia’s RESTORE Act advisory council, said, “We will be better off because of the oil spill and the availability of money, because it has forced us to look at the environmental issues and other issues we would not have looked at otherwise.”

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