Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project, was originally published here.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Was a Cover-Up, Not a Cleanup
Deepwater Horizon, called “the worst environmental disaster in American history,” was one of the environmental stories I covered at HuffPost a decade ago.
“On April 20, 2010, a fiery explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had killed 11 workers and injured 17. One mile underwater, the Macondo well had blown apart, unleashing a gusher of oil into the gulf,” Grist reported.
For 87 days, the leak was unstoppable.
“The damaged Macondo wellhead, located around 5,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface, leaked an estimated 3.19 million barrels (over 130 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — making the spill the largest accidental ocean spill in history,” according to Grist journalist Mark Hertsgaard, in an article written three years after the accident.
“At risk were fishing areas that supplied one-third of the seafood consumed in the U.S., beaches from Texas to Florida that drew billions of dollars’ worth of tourism to local economies, and Obama’s chances of reelection.”
In revisiting the terrible accident, which produced lasting environmental contamination, it’s important to examine the Obama administration’s “pragmatic” decisions that caused, allowed to proceed, and ultimately failed to remediate the disaster by:
- Allowing the driller, BP, to cut corners, and to self-regulate
- Ignoring well-known corruption within the federal agency charged with oversight
- Dismissing concerns posed by its own scientists
- Bypassing authentic remediation and instead pouring 1.84 million gallons of a chemical product called Corexit into the Gulf of Mexico without regard for environmental or health consequences.
This was done, ostensibly, to clean up the contamination. The reality is that Corexit did not clean up the over 92,000 miles of spilled oil. Instead, it visually covered up the extent of the damage done by the fossil fuel industry. Protecting the industry’s image superseded the environmentally sound response to the worst environmental disaster in the U.S.
Unsound Environmental Decisions
Ten years later, it’s easier to recognize that such decisions, which elected officials at the time viewed as pragmatic, can produce major, ongoing negative ramifications when the superficial solution fails to address the problem.
Revisiting the now decade-long evolution of the disaster and the cover-up, a recent article in Common Dreams reports on a study published in Science, which reveals that “a significant amount of oil was never picked up in satellite images or captured by barriers that were meant to stop the spread.”
One of the study’s authors notes that “[o]ur results change established perceptions about the consequences of oil spills by showing that toxic and invisible oil can extend beyond the satellite footprint at potentially lethal and sub-lethal concentrations to a wide range of wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico,” with “invisible oil” reaching an area 30% larger than the 92,500 square miles experts identified at the time.
Public officials may exonerate themselves for a bad decision by claiming that the terrible outcome could only be known with 20/20 hindsight. But in this case, that’s not true.
As a health reporter back in 2010, I always read labels, because products sometimes contain understudied toxic ingredients, which are mistakenly regarded by the general public as harmless when diluted or dispersed — a claim made then and now by industry and its media spokespeople, and ignorantly codified even by journalists well-versed in other areas but overly zealous in a unilateral defense of science. I therefore researched Corexit, which, as I reported back then in HuffPost, is a dispersant that its producer, a company called NALCO, claimed on its website was “safer than dish soap.”
My specific concerns were, first, that the use of the product would spread the oil throughout the waters of the gulf, making it harder to pick up and remove the spilled oil. Because Corexit was known as a dispersant, I could not understand why the government chose to use it.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Dispersants are chemicals that are sprayed on a surface oil slick to break down the oil into smaller droplets that more readily mix with the water. Dispersants do not reduce the amount of oil entering the environment, but push the effects of the spill underwater.”
I also was concerned about the biological hazards of exposure to Corexit’s proprietary and undisclosed ingredients. The claim that Corexit was safer than dish soap did not account for possible health impacts of ingredients in soap, when used at such scale in combination with the already toxic oil. It turned out that this concern was shared by scientists.
A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution found that crude oil becomes 52 times more toxic when combined with Corexit.
Government scientists also found that the combination of Corexit and crude oil “caused terrible damage to gulf wildlife and ecosystems, including an unprecedented number of seafood mutations; declines of up to 80 percent in seafood catch; and massive die-offs of the microscopic life-forms at the base of the marine food chain.”
The Government Accountability Project noted that “as a result of Corexit’s perceived success, Corexit … has become the dispersant of choice in the U.S. to ‘clean up’ oil spills.”
Protecting the Fossil Fuel Industry and Destroying the Gulf of Mexico
Proper management of the disaster might have entailed curtailing drilling activities, getting sufficient payback from the offending company to undertake complete environmental remediation, and providing aid to affected communities.
Although BP eventually was held “responsible for the oil spill as a result of its deliberate misconduct and gross negligence” by a federal court in 2014, that did not alter the management of the clean-up. The Obama administration accepted BP’s cosmetic solution — something that improved appearances — and silenced concerns. It was a cover-up, not a cleanup.
Fortified by President Obama’s promise that “the buck stops with me,” the gulf oil spill was deep-sixed, and disappeared from headlines and news accounts. Meanwhile, the very real contamination of the Gulf of Mexico continued, worsened and spread.
The government missed addressing — and, in fact, increased — a vast ecological harm. Contaminating water, creating dead zones and killing off wildlife in order to perpetuate an industry exemplifies a profound disorder in priorities. There is nothing pragmatic about it.
Now, like a toxic salad dressing concocted by industry and government, the blend of Corexit and oil has traveled miles beyond the original spill location, killing 50% of all marine wildlife wherever it spreads.
Environmental Talking Points
The ongoing tragedy of Deepwater Horizon is relevant today, because it challenges both people and government. How can citizens move beyond slick buzzwords and cosmetic approaches to environmental dilemmas embedded in systemic infrastructures? Talking points with an environmental theme don’t really reveal much. When politicians fail to define their plans, they use talking points as a protective cover for just about any policy decision. Some people trust or like politicians and don’t look further into what they are being sold. Blatantly partisan media outlets don’t fulfill their traditional journalistic role by delving into policy differences. They tend to focus superficially, on personalities.
For example, based on New Hampshire exit polls, The Washington Post reported that 29% of voters who view climate as their top issue voted for Pete Buttigeig on that basis. This reveals that some people are unable to distinguish between a verbal assurance, such as Buttigeig provides, and Bernie Sanders’ concrete climate plan, which was rated A+ by the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund’s Environmental Voter Guide. The center gave Buttigeig’s proposed environmental policies a C- rating.
While Republicans are blatantly anti-environmental, Democrats come off as well-spoken and dedicated to climate action. But history tells us that posing as an environmentalist while pursuing anti-environmental policies is a Democratic tradition, which Democratic voters need to acknowledge if we really want to act on climate rather than fall for polished phrases and firm assurances. Joe Biden’s climate change adviser is a fossil fuel industry veteran. Michael Bloomberg supported the use of fossil fuels by pouring millions of dollars into scientific research that aimed (unsuccessfully) to remediate fracking infrastructures from leaking methane. Jay Inslee changed his stance to oppose two gas projects he had previously supported — right before announcing his presidential aspirations. Yet many wrongly considered him the “climate expert” among the Democratic candidates.
The Democratic Party’s track record for timely action in environmental matters can no longer be given a pass. It must be measured by the current state of multiple ecological crises that have taken place under its watch, not merely by comparison to the Republicans’ dire and destructive actions.
It’s time to get real about crucial planning, which Democrats have historically paid lip service to and failed to enact. They defer to industries and billionaires, some of whom like to pose before the life-or-death issue of planetary survival — as if they own that, too.
Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon contamination, the gas and oil industry still has a chokehold on both parties in our political system, the cleanliness of which they pollute.
The Deepwater Horizon spill was a flashing red light to prompt us to stop and reconsider these fossil fuel drilling activities, which had been critiqued a decade ago. But that warning was ignored.
Unless someone at a private dinner records something that was never meant to reach the public, we can never cite evidence of backstage conversations and deals that determine the future of life on this planet.
But more and more people can see the evidence:
- A brutal unraveling of sane environmental policies and regulations
- A blatantly partisan media funded by corporate interests
- A heavy hand on the nomination and electoral process
- The condition of the gulf 10 years later
- The destruction of Australia right now.