The massive and continuing torrent of oil from the April 20th explosion on and subsequent sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon ultra-deepwater drilling rig is the worst environmental disaster in US history. The unfolding devastation will forever alter the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Over 100 million gallons of oil are estimated to have been released into the Gulf already, nine times more oil than was released by the catastrophic wreck of the Exxon Valdez. Recent estimates indicate that, two months after the initial explosion, 2.5 million gallons continue to spew into the fragile and once ecologically rich Gulf ecosystem every day! In other words, BP is releasing the equivalent of a new Exxon Valdez every four and a half days.
Oiled and dead birds, sea turtles, dolphins and fish are showing up in increasing quantities, and many more dead animals are likely to be lost at sea never to be accounted for. Oil is approaching sensitive breeding areas for birds on marshes and beaches, and scientists are predicting a near total breeding failure for those birds this year.
More sea turtles, fish and marine mammals are likely to suffer as the toxic plume, currently measuring 20 miles long and five miles wide, disperses through the water column. The already tenuous future of threatened and endangered sperm whales, manatees, sea turtles, and brown pelicans is particularly worrisome. At least twenty national wildlife refuges and forty endangered species will be impacted as oil moves through the powerful waters of the Gulf Stream. We will not truly understand the full effects of this unprecedented and still escalating disaster for many years to come.
The effects on wildlife of the experimental dispersants used by BP to break up the oil are largely unknown and may, in fact, do more harm than good, by spreading chemicals throughout the food chain, as well as spreading the oil further. BP has applied over a million gallons of the toxic chemical to break down the oil and disperse it at sea, protecting shorelines while sacrificing countless animals in the water column and those on the sea floor.
The damage predictions are devastating, and efforts thus far to stop the flow of oil, largely unsuccessful. Crews have been using a variety of methods to keep oil from reaching beaches, wetlands and estuaries, but cleanup efforts have been erratic and insufficient, resulting from BP’s gross lack of emergency preparedness and intentional trivialization of the risks. There have even been reports of BP workers blocking efforts to rescue endangered sea turtles and burning the animals alive. The lack of government oversight and the failure to follow even loose regulatory measures are painfully apparent.
The industry-friendly Minerals Management Service has allowed, essentially, oil companies to self-regulate for years, encouraging dangerous drilling operations to move forward without environmental safeguards.
On May 27, President Obama announced a 6-month “moratorium” on new offshore drilling permits. However, most of the existing 3,500 drilling rigs and platforms in U.S. coastal waters (79 of them deepwater wells), including some particularly dangerous projects, are allowed to continue, like ticking time bombs. The BP Atlantis, for example, one of the largest oil platforms in the world and also in the Gulf, is documented to have serious safety problems, yet remains in operation. Were something to go awry on the Atlantis, the Deepwater Horizon disaster would pale in comparison.