BP Spill One Year Later: The Biggest Unanswered Questions


Photo credit: ideum via Flickr/CC BY-SA

Around this time one year ago, reports were trickling in that an oil rig owned by BP in the Gulf of Mexico had suffered a major explosion, and that over a dozen workers were missing. As the story unfolded over the next few days and weeks, more questions surfaced than answers: What caused the explosion? How much oil was spewing from the wellhead? And so on. As weeks turned into months, and BP continued to drastically lowball its spill estimates and refuse to answer key questions about the accident, the situation was only more perplexing -- and more infuriating. Were cleanup workers being treated fairly? Were those dispersants being dumped into the Gulf dangerous? How threatened were local ecosystems? Now, a year after the disaster, it'd be nice to say that we had all those answers. But we're not even close -- today, I'll take a look at the biggest questions still looming about the spill:

What's the true impact on Gulf ecosystems and wildlife?

We might as well start with what's perhaps the most Treehugger-y question still very much up in the air after the spill. Scientists are uncertain how, exactly, the BP spill has effected the region, especially in terms of impacts on sea life. Hundreds of very endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles have been washing ashore, and dead dolphins are showing up at 10 times the normal rate. It remains to be seen how and if the ongoing deaths are related to the spill -- but the incident illustrates how great the uncertainty swirling around the spill still is.

We know that over 6,000 birds, 600 sea turtles, and 160 dolphins were directly killed by the spill. We know that biologists have found traces of oil and dispersant in the larvae of blue crabs, revealing that those dispersants had broken down the oil to a size where it could more easily enter the food chain. We know that researchers discovered that oil spill waters contained many more carcinogens, and we know that Gulf shrimp and fish have been shown to contain toxic hydrocarbons. We know that satellite data shows that some 20% of the endangered bluefin tuna spawn were killed in the spill.


Photo credit: IBRRC

What we don't know is how far or long-lasting these impacts go. Scientists have been concerned about the use of chemical dispersants -- which BP dumped over 1 million gallons of throughout the spill -- since word came that they were using the stuff. The long-term effects that its usage may have are largely unknown, and could be causing some of the wildlife woes ongoing today. Furthermore, scientists speculate that much of the carnage has occurred below the surface, and the toll on sea life is much greater than is being publicized -- many believe that as many as 50 times more animals have been killed than have been reported, that the oil spill damaged fragile coral reefs, and that oil and dispresants are still stuck in the food chain, after being absorbed by zoo plankton and fish.

And all that's saying nothing of the fragile marshes and coastal habitats -- we're still unsure just how much oil will be left there, despite the cleanup efforts. As Scientific American stated in a much-referenced article, the devastating impacts of the oil on Gulf ecosystems could last for years, even decades.


Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Flickr/CC BY

2. What are the health impacts on residents?

Just as sticky an issue is whether or not the Gulf spill has caused a debilitating wave of illness in residents across the region. According to a report from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local environmental watchdog, 75% of Gulf residents reported suffering from illnesses they believed were caused by the spill. Kate Sheppard reports:

Of the 954 residents in seven coastal communities, almost half said they had experienced health problems like coughing, skin and eye irritation, or headaches that are consistent with common symptoms of chemical exposure. While the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is conducting health monitoring for spill cleanup workers, residents in the areas closest to the spill are concerned that their own health problems have gone unattended.
Exposure to the toxic chemicals in the oil and the dispersants are believed to be to blame in some of these cases. Chemists have explained that the dispersants broke down the toxic compounds and made them water soluble, so that they were carried inland and deposited as rainfall. Fumes from the oil itself has made cleanup workers sick in a number of documented cases. But again -- we're still without a solid consensus as to the extent of the spill's impact on human health, and many questions remain.

3. Will Gulf residents be fairly compensated?

Time will tell. In a reimbursement process that's maddening to every party involved, only 300,000 of the nearly 900,000 claims have been approved, according to the LA Times. Among those 900,000 claims, there are certainly some that are looking to take advantage of the situation -- but these are no doubt the minority, and there are hundreds of thousands of honest working men and women who've had their livelihoods devastated by the spill who haven't yet be compensated.


Photo credit: DVIDSHUB via Flickr/CC BY

4. Has the BP spill taught us how to prevent further spills?

Guess how many laws have been made to crack down on the sort of reckless drilling and operating procedures that lead to this mess? If you guessed zero, you're right. Not a single major law or amendment has been passed to prevent this kind of disaster from occurring again. Sure, Obama reorganized the ridiculously corrupt Minerals and Management Services, but even top officials say they don't have the resources necessary to properly hold the oil industry to task.

Meanwhile oil companies are vying to drill in the Gulf again, and politicians are pushing for expanded offshore entitlements. So, out of all the tricky questions that the Gulf spill has left in its wake, this one may, as of now, have the clearest answer -- no, no it has not. In fact, you could argue that the BP spill has taught America as absolutely little as a major oil disaster possibly could. Which means there's still a lot of work to be done in adequately analyzing the extent of this catastrophe, and spreading the word about the suffering it's caused. There's a long way to go before history will view the BP spill as the wake up call it continues to be.

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For video updates on the BP spill, check out Stories from the Gulf, a series about the struggles of residents in the region put together by the NRDC.

More on the BP Spill
The Best Writing on the BP Oil Spill
Why the BP Spill Hasn't Invigorated Environmentalism
Breaking: BP Spill is Over, Oil is Gone, Problem Solved

BP Spill One Year Later: The Biggest Unanswered Questions
Around this time one year ago, reports were trickling in that an oil rig owned by BP in the Gulf of Mexico had suffered a major explosion, and that over a dozen workers were missing. As the story unfolded over

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