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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Revisiting the Gulf Deepwater Disaster

Air Date: Week of
Oil in the Gulf of Mexico. (Jeff Young)

The well is capped but the Gulf oil disaster is not over. Oil remains in the water and is taking a toll on the ecosystem. Senior National Wildlife Federation biologist Doug Inkley tells host Bruce Gellerman that oily plankton is making dolphins and other marine life sick. Also, the two co-chairs of the National Oil Spill Commission, Florida Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, grade the progress industry and government have made on making the oil drilling safer. The resulting report card isn’t good.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

[TAPE: NEWSCASTER ONE: Oil from a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico has now reached the Louisiana coastline

NEWSCASTER TWO: Well BP says its containment cap system is making some real progress.

NEWSCASTER THREE: The concern is if all the oil in the Gulf isn’t stopped, it could push all the way over to Florida.

GELLERMAN: The BP debacle dumped two hundred million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Today, two years on, we look back on the disaster and try to assess the environmental impacts so far.

In July 2010, we sent Living on Earth reporter Jeff Young to survey the mess. Oil was still gushing into the Gulf when Jeff set out on a boat about ten miles from the mouth of the Mississippi with National Wildlife Federation biologist Doug Inkley. Jeff spotted an oil slick on the sea.

Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation with oil in the background. (Photo: Jeff Young )

YOUNG: Okay, but nasty as this is, this has got to be better than it was?

INKLEY: Well certainly the situation I’m looking at on the surface appears to be better than it was from what I saw two months ago. It is more degraded. I’m not seeing as much of it. But I’m also not looking underwater. I’m very anxious to see the reports and the science and the reports that come back from NOAA and other government agencies looking at this underwater. I wish you could come back to talk to me in five years and I could say, I was wrong. I hope I’m wrong about the impacts. But I don’t think I am.

YOUNG: Inkley thinks the impact will be big and broad. And he says it’s time to start thinking the same way about recovery: large-scale and long-term.

INKLEY: The ultimate solution to this BP oil spill is to do long-term restoration. You really can’t clean the oil up, as we’ve seen, because it’s floating out here in the Gulf. You really can’t clean up once it’s spilled. If you go into the wetlands you do more harm than good by tromping around in there or using other means to try to get it out of there. Recognizing we can’t go in and clean the oil out of the wetlands, let’s put in place a large program to begin to restore some of these wetland areas.

GELLERMAN: That was Doug Inkley with the National Wildlife Federation in 2010. Well, we decided to check back with Doug earlier than he suggested, to see how the Gulf and wildlife are doing now two years after the disaster.

INKLEY: Oil is still there, as a matter of fact oil was oozing out of the marshes as we stepped in it. So, there’s no question that the oil is still there. The big concern I have right now is that we are seeing evidence from independent scientific studies and a little bit of information released from the federal government’s natural resources damage assessment, but most of the information that we need to have about the impacts is being held undercover. It’s not being released; it’s being considered confidential because of the litigation that’s in process.

GELLERMAN: Well, we do know that certain species have been dramatically affected, I’m thinking of the dolphins in the Gulf. Since the disaster there have been over six hundred stranded dolphins along the coast, and usually there’s just about seventy-five a year.

INKLEY: That’s right, the dolphin strandings are way, way above historic levels. As a matter of fact, the number of months that we have had above-average dolphin strandings is now twenty-six, that’s two and half times as long as ever before, with four times as many dolphins killed. Dolphins are an indicator species because they are at the top of the food chain. In the studies that were released from dolphins in the most heavily oiled areas in Barataria Bay, they’re finding that these dolphins are sick. They have anemia. They have signs of liver disease, they have low blood sugar, their immune systems appear to be compromised. This is not a good sign.

GELLERMAN: What about things like zooplankton? The stuff that’s at the bottom of the food chain, is it hazardous to ingest?

Doug Inkley scooped up oil from Gulf waters. (Photo: Jeff Young )

INKLEY: Well, it may well be. Because what they did find was traces of hazardous materials in these zooplankton and phytoplankton – zooplankton being small animals, phytoplankton being small plants – both of them plankton. And they are at the very base of the food chain. If you go further up the food chain into the killifish, which is a small fish that lives in the marshes along the coast, they have found very strong evidence of physiological changes in these killifish, and then look at the dolphins that eat the fish, we have a problem with them as well.

So there is evidence, what little’s available at the present time, that unfortunately our predictions of just a year or two ago when the oil spill occurred are coming true. I’m not really surprised, because if you look at the Exxon Valdez spill twenty-three years ago, Pacific herring population still has not recovered. So, the Gulf oil spill is not over. We are going to be living with it for quite some time.

GELLERMAN: Well, when our reporter Jeff Young spoke with you in July 2010, the gusher still had not been capped and you were worried about the wetlands back then. What about the long-term restoration of the wetlands, and what’s the condition of the wetlands right now?

INKLEY: Well we are still seeing oil in the wetlands. We know we have additional loss of the wetlands because they are toxic to these wetlands. Some of these areas simply cannot be cleaned up. What we really need to do here, to recover from this Gulf coast oil spill, from this disaster, is to do long-term restoration of the Gulf.

Unfortunately the oil spill is the latest of many assaults that man has inflicted on the Gulf of Mexico’s wetlands and we have lost a tremendous amount of them including some two thousand square miles of wetlands already. Imagine, that’s an area two hundred miles long by ten miles wide of Gulf coast wetlands that have already been lost. And this accelerated it.

GELLERMAN: Well, is there any bright side from this grim news? Is there any species or plant that is doing well?

INKLEY: A bright side on this, that’s a tough one that’s really a hard to come up with an answer for you, Bruce. Because there are so many things that need to be done as a result of this oil spill that have not yet been done. We haven’t dedicated the funds to restoration of the Gulf. We haven’t strengthened the regulations to regulate the oil and gas development in the Gulf. In fact, it continues now with no improvement in them since the accident occurred.

And the wildlife has been affected and we do not yet have a comprehensive Gulf coast restoration program in place. So it’s hard for me to be very pleased with the progress that has been made since the spill began just two years ago. We still have a lot of work to do. We need to get these things done.

GELLERMAN: Doug Inkley is senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. To prevent oil-drilling disasters in the future, President Obama created the National Oil Spill Commission. Heading up the independent commission were William Reilly, chief of the EPA under President George H. W. Bush and Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and ex-governor of Florida.

Their first assessment a year after the spill was a searing evaluation of BP, the oil industry, and the government’s response. Now they’ve issued a new report card and the co-chairmen are feeling a bit more charitable, but only a bit. We start with former EPA Administrator William Reilly

EPA Administrator William K. Reilly served under President George H. W. Bush. (Photo: Wikimedia )

REILLY: We gave industry a C+ and frankly would have given them a higher grade but for the fact that there have been three spills: one in China, one in Brazil, one in the North Sea, within the past year with major companies involved. Other than that, they’ve done a great deal to respond to the recommendations we’ve made.

GELLERMAN: So, Senator, if there were a Macondo BP Oil disaster that happened today, would they be able to respond, industry?

GRAHAM: The grade is incomplete. The industry has set up two entities which are responsible for containing and cleaning up a future event like Macondo. It appears as if those are very solid and will be effective but they’ve never been tested.

Bob Graham (D) served as both a senator and governor of Florida. (Photo: Wikimedia )

GELLERMAN: Mr. Reilly, you were the administrator of the EPA, how would you grade the EPA?

REILLY: Well, the EPA was responsible for a task force that convened with respect to the ecological circumstances of the Gulf and the fines and penalties, which are likely to be very considerable, levied against BP, are dedicated, as we recommended in the commission, eighty percent to ecological restoration. Until we actually see those resources and see them dedicated in the way we proposed, then it’s a little hard to say how that will come out.

But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson led that group and shares with us the conviction that that’s where that money ought to go, rather than into the federal Treasury, which ordinarily it would go. The government, also particularly the Interior Department, has just reformed itself. A lot of new hires, much better leadership, better quality of engineers, more formation in training and so forth and a lot of new regulations that we think make sense and look like they do respond to the recommendations we’ve made and the findings we’ve concluded.

GELLERMAN: So, the Administration gets what grade?

REILLY: We gave the Administration a B.

GELLERMAN: Well, it’s Congress that doles out the money and it makes the regulations, how have you rated Congress?

GRAHAM: This is Senator Bob Graham. Congress has done some good things. One is the passage in the Senate of the legislation that would allocate eighty percent of the fines to the restoration of the Gulf, the House has not yet taken that legislation up, and second, the Congress has appropriated significantly more resources to the Department of the Interior to carry out its safety responsibilities. But, beyond that, the Congress has done virtually nothing to implement the recommendations that we made. So, to answer your question, we gave Congress a D.

GELLERMAN: A “D.” So in terms of the new drilling in the Gulf, do you feel comfortable that there won’t be an accident on the scale of the BP disaster?

GRAHAM: No, I don’t believe anybody can give you an insurance policy that there won’t be a spill. What we can say is that the chances of such an event are lower and there’s been no drilling within state waters of Florida, nor in the federal waters which are adjacent, and this goes back many years. Now, where there is drilling is off the coast of Cuba. For the first time, Cuba is drilling in its offshore waters. The drill sites are very close to the Gulf Stream, which means that if there were to be an accident, the oil would go into the Gulf Stream and be swept north along the eastern seaboard of the United States. That’s a legitimate concern.

A hearing on the final report from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. (Photo: FlickrCC/Natural Resources Democrats)

GELLERMAN: Is there anything technological, managerial, legislative, social, cultural, that would prevent the continuation of deep drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

GRAHAM: Yes, and it’s the loss of public confidence that it can be done safely and without endangering the environment and the costal areas. So I think that there is a merger of interests of those who are anxious to increase or maintain U.S. offshore oil and gas production and those who are interested in safety and ability to respond to an accident. Both elements are going to be necessary in order to maintain public confidence in this very important activity, which today is providing an excess of thirty percent of the oil and gas raised throughout the United States.

REILLY: This is William Reilly. I think that’s important, but it’s got to be done with greater rigor, greater care than it has been historically. There was a, I think, a transition that occurred, from shallow water to deep water, which significantly raised the risk and the complexity. In our view, the industry and government together did not adequately adapt to these higher risks with better systems of safety, and it somewhat transformed culture. We believe that now there is evidence, over the last couple of years at least, that is changing. That is a change much to be desired. One hopes that it will be more effective as a result.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Reilly, thank you very much.

REILLY: You’re very welcome.

GELLERMAN: And, Senator Graham, thank you.

GRAHAM: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Former Florida Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William Reilly co-chaired the National Oil Spill Commission.



Deep Water: Recommendations from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (January 2011)

Oil Spill Commission Action now tracks progress on commission advice

National Wildlife Federation interactive map of affected areas

2010 report “Gulf Oil and Gulf Restoration” by Jeff Young


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