As residents of South Louisiana braced for the onslaught of Hurricane Isaac, they asked themselves the following question: Will we face only the traditional hardships associated with a hurricane, or will we be covered in oil again?
From April 20, 2010 to July 15, 2010, British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon rig released 4.9 million barrels of Louisiana light sweet crude oil from the Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that 1.1 million barrels of the oil are still polluting the gulf in the form of surface oil (light sheen), tar balls and submerged oil mats. (Tao et. al., 2011)
British Petroleum (hereinafter, BP), the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, was asked to comment. On August 29, 2012, they assured the public that they did not expect any significant impact in the form of oil from the 2010 event being washed ashore by Hurricane Isaac. (Shauk, 2012) Their position was that they had cleaned up all of the oil and that the ecosystem was in recovery. (CBS/AP, 9/5/2012)
The Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness was less sanguine. Their website advised residents that oil from the disaster might, in fact, be pushed ashore by the storm. (Shauk, 2012)
Residents remained uneasy. They recalled the rain of tar balls visited on South Alabama by Tropical Storm Lee and on South Mississippi by Tropical Storm Debbie. Confidence in the August 29, 2012 pronouncement of BP (soon to be indicted on 14 counts of criminal negligence, including one count of lying to Congress about the volume of oil spilled) (Huffington Post, 2012) was low.
On August 28, 2012, Hurricane Isaac descended on South Louisiana, carrying large amounts of oil and tar balls that the storm scooped up from the floor of the gulf. BP challenged the assertion that the oil came from the Macondo well. Their challenge is not surprising, since if the oil was shown to be from the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP would have to help pay to clean it up. (Green, 2012) Fortunately, oil has a chemical fingerprint that makes it possible to identify its origin. (Gonzales, 2012) Testing proved that the oil was clearly from the Macondo well.
A new oil sheen appeared 50 miles off the Louisiana coast in early September. Tests confirmed that the oil was from Macondo. (WKRG.com NEWS5, 2012) Researchers from the University of Miami monitored the area of the original spill. They discovered upwelling of oil during Hurricane Isaac. (Gonzales, 2012) Once again, South Louisiana was covered in oil.
Economic effects were immediate. Commercial fishing and all shrimping were closed along 13 miles of the Louisiana coast because of the presence of tar mats and tar balls. (Goldenberg, 2012) Other coastal waters were already closed to fishing because of the continuing presence of Deepwater Horizon oil. (Gannon, 2012)
Environmental effects were also immediate. The Coast Guard found pelicans and other wildlife in the Louisiana marshes coated with the oil. (Smyth, 2012) The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries confirmed the presence of oil-soaked birds. (Gannon, 2012) In nearby coastal Mississippi, tens of thousands of dead nutria corpses littered the beaches, creating rank odors and a health hazard. (Pappas, 2012)
Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, blamed the continued presence of a million barrels of oil in the gulf on BP's failure to clean it all up. He also commented that the amount of oil in question was four to five time the amount from the Exxon Valdez spill. (Smyth, 2012)
Instead of cleaning up the oil, BP used 2.1 million gallons of dispersants to sink it to the ocean floor. (Allan et. al & Goldenberg, 2012) The submerged oil formed mats, which are an ongoing threat to coastal ecosystems. (Msnbc.com, 2011) Furthermore, the oil does not appear to be breaking down or weathering, as many authorities thought it would. It appears that a lack of oxygen on the gulf floor has kept the oil mats relatively fresh and hardly changed. (Msnbc.com, 2011) In addition, "many scientists think that the interaction of the toxic dispersants with the crude oil creates an even more toxic overall effect." (Mancuso et al, 2012)
Since Hurricane Isaac, the realization appears to be growing that the negative effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill are a long-term problem. Oil from the spill reappeared on coastal beaches after Tropical Storms Lee and Debbie and after Hurricane Isaac. It is becoming clear that as long as a million gallons of oil remain on the gulf floor, there is an ongoing threat to the ecosystem.
Stuart Smith, a lawyer who represents hundreds of coastal property and business owners, is requesting that BP's proposed $7.8 billion partial settlement to injured parties not be approved. Smith argues that Hurricane Isaac shows that the spill has not been contained, that the oil is still affecting the area, and that the full extent of the damage cannot yet be determined. (GCaptain Staff, 2012)
Shortly after Hurricane Isaac, the Department of Justice urged "a federal judge to ignore arguments by BP that the Gulf Coast's natural resources are making a robust recovery from the company's massive oil spill." (CBS/AP, 2012) The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of the spill, alleging gross negligence and willful misconduct on the part of BP. (Kunzelman, 2012) A 2011 report by the Coast Guard and federal regulators found that "BP violated federal regulations, ignored crucial warnings and made bad decisions during the cementing of the well." (Kunzelman, 2012) Furthermore, it appears that internal emails at BP could expose cover-up activities and intentional underreporting of the amount of oil flowing out of the damaged well. (Cousins, 2012)
Even before Hurricane Isaac, BP had begun to sell off assets in the Gulf of Mexico. The stated reason was to help pay for the expenses of the clean up. However, there is the concern that BP may be maneuvering to avoid aspects of its post-spill responsibilities. Alabama Congressman Jo Bonner stated, "Regardless of its business interests in the gulf, BP is still responsible for honoring its oil spill financial obligations under the Clean Water Act and the court-administered claims process." (Williams, 2012) BP claims that the sale of almost half of its gulf assets is a strategic decision and says they will continue to invest in the gulf, adding two wells by the end of 2012. (Associated Press, 2012)
In mid-November 2012, BP was convicted of 14 felony counts related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The conviction included a charge of obstruction of justice for lying to Congress about how much oil was gushing from the damaged well. The fine was set at $4.5 billion, which is the largest corporate criminal penalty ever assessed. The fines will be assessed in addition to the settlements BP is required to make with property and business owners. The fine seems large until it is viewed in the context of BP's profits for the quarter ending September 30, 2012. Quarterly profits were $5.4 billion. (Huffington Post, 2012) In...