Defense Media Network

The Disaster That Would Not End

A look back at the BP oil spill

When an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico, few would have thought the April 20 incident would become the largest and most complex story of 2010. The initial tragedy of 11 oil workers killed and 17 injured was bad enough, but the shockwave and residual debris from the blast would reach all the way to Washington, D.C., and around the world, leaving many ruined livelihoods, reputations, and ways of life in its wake.

Occurring in the same vicinity almost five years after Hurricane Katrina tore into the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines, the disaster-fatigued Gulf Coast residents found themselves inheriting a new set of challenges no one could have imagined. The oil rig, owned by Transocean Ltd. but leased by BP, was engaged in deep water drilling in an area just over 40 miles from the Louisiana coastline. Drilling at depths more than a mile deep, the Deepwater Horizon unit had been in operation for several years prior to the explosion. This particular oil rig was one of hundreds of such platforms operating in the Gulf of Mexico, but the notoriety of this drilling platform has made it the most unforgettable of structures in a trillion-dollar industry.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class James Skinner, from Elba, Ala., takes hold of Seaman Alex Colebrooke, from Crystal River, Fla., to keep him from slipping on the oil-covered deck of the CGC Harry Claiborone (WLM 561). The crew is preparing to remove a Vessel of Opportunity Skimming System (VOSS) following the successful collection of oil from the Gulf. The U.S. Coast Guard was working in partnership with BP PLC, local residents, and other federal agencies to aid in preventing the spread of oil following the April 20 explosion on mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (AW/SW). Jonathen E. Davis)

After the explosion, the oil rig burned for a day and a half before sinking on April 22. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Coast Guard began to observe an oil slick spreading from where the rig once stood. Working with BP and its industry partners, Transocean and Halliburton, the Coast Guard discovered that their problems with the sunken rig were only just beginning. Spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was an uncontrollable flow of oil emanating from a ruptured wellhead. For 79 days, the oil would flow without pause, leaving the U.S. government, the oil industry, and, indeed, the world scrambling for solutions to stop it.

Every urgent and inventive solution put forward – from lowering containment caps; to placing a “top hat” over the ruptured wellhead; to pumping heavy mud through the well’s piping to choke off the oil flow – failed. Engineering and scientific principles would be challenged every stretch of the way. The pressure-filled challenge would be described by one senior government official as trying to do an Apollo 13-type of rescue on the bottom of the ocean floor. The only proven option to kill the well was to drill two relief wells adjacent to the leaking unit and seal it off with a mixture of heavy mud and cement – a time intensive and laborious process. By the time the ruptured wellhead was successfully, albeit temporarily, capped on July 15, and the well officially killed on Sept. 19, federal government and industry officials and other researchers would estimate that nearly 200 million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf.

As astounding as that total spill volume may have been, the 24/7 spill-camera (“spill-cam”) is what made one of the world’s largest industrial accidents very real and very personal. Mounted on board an underwater robotic vehicle, the spill-cam broadcast a continuous non-stop shot of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.

While live news footage has captured the aftereffects of other disasters (both natural and man-made), the BP oil spill, as the disaster would go on to be called, may have been the only disaster that had a constant live shot for nearly a hundred days, uninterrupted. That constant live shot became the go-to image that news services broadcast around the world. As real as the spill-cam made the disaster for people around the world, it paled in comparison to the anguish and fury of those on the Gulf Coast.

Millions of gallons of spilled oil have to go somewhere, and for the people of the Gulf Coast, who are figuratively, economically, and by tradition joined to the warm-watered shoreline, their backyard was where the oil would end up. No one living from the tip of coastal Texas to the tip of the Florida Keys would be immune, either. Whether they are fishermen, outdoorsmen, real estate agents, tourist industry members, restaurant workers, oil industry workers, or just regular residents who live near the water, 2010 was an economic nightmare that would continue long after the well was capped.

Shortly after the oil spill was discovered, large plumes of oil became visible in Gulf waters, and not just by aircraft. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and commercial satellites also captured the encroaching slicks. With ever-moving currents and tidal shifts, the oil eventually started to make its way toward the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines. Recognizing at the outset the unfolding environmental catastrophe on its hands, particularly with the fragile wetlands that are home to countless species of birds, sea turtles, shell fish, and more, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other federal resources were aggressively put to work. With BP publicly claiming full responsibility for the oil spill and paying for all of the response activities, hundreds of fishing boats that would normally have been casting their nets for shrimp and other delicacies would instead set sail looking for oil. Traveling with oil skimmers, vacuums, nearly 3 million feet of oil containment boom, and other inventive means, crews would do everything they could, including controlled burns, to protect the Gulf Coast’s fragile marshlands, coastlines, and waters from permanent ruin. Before it was all over, 8,000 vessels, 123 aircraft, and nearly 50,000 people would be put to work to spot, track, and recover oil. It would be one of the world’s largest disaster mobilizations in history.

Leading the response to the disaster was a familiar face to the Gulf Coast region and to the American public. Adm. Thad Allen, the soon-to-be-retired commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, found himself at the helm of another national incident where hope was fleeting and problems were uncountable. Five years earlier, Allen had been tapped to salvage the response and recovery operations following the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. The one-time principal federal official answering to President George W. Bush was now the national incident commander answering to President Barack Obama.

His leadership presence in the ongoing disaster was noted immediately by almost everyone. Just as the Bush administration had taken rampant criticism for fumbling the initial Katrina response, the Obama administration was taking a similar beating for how it was handling the oil spill. While they were two entirely separate events that by coincidence occurred in the same region, Obama would defensively state in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams that when comparing the two situations, Allen was the only common factor.

View from a remotely operated vehicle as a small pollution containment chamber, known as the “top hat,” is lowered into the Gulf of Mexico by the motor vessel Viking Poseidon May 11, 2010. The chamber was used in an attempt to contain the oil leak that was caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley


Regardless of Allen’s reinforcing presence, oil still flowed from the Gulf floor and deployed oil booms and other recovery techniques failed to keep Gulf shorelines oil free. BP would ultimately deploy clean-up crews from Louisiana to Florida to recover tar balls and other oil residue from the stained beaches. The timing and the economic conditions could not have been worse. Instead of beaches full of sun-bathing tourists splashing in the warm waters, clean-up crews in rubber boots and gloves trolled the shores. Beachfront hotels and rental properties that had been booked solid for the summer vacation season now found themselves taking cancellation orders. No one wanted to risk swimming in oil-filled waters or walking on a tar-balled beach. Even Gulf Coast communities that never saw a drop of oil on their shorelines saw their usual influx of tourists and beach dwellers dissipate. With the lingering economic recession, this was not what the tourism industry needed to have happen. But they were not alone in their misery.

The livelihoods of Gulf shrimpers and fishermen were interrupted almost from the start. With imposed bans on fishing in areas near the Deepwater Horizon, areas that would eventually extend into other portions of the Gulf, people who were finally getting back to work after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav found themselves recovering oil instead of hauling fishing nets.

Recognizing one of the many public relations disasters it had on its hands, BP eventually, through its “Vessels of Opportunity” program, hired thousands of fishermen and their boats and sent them to the Gulf with every means possible to collect oil. While pleased to have some sort of income that would have otherwise been lost since the fishing bans were imposed, many of the fishermen recognized that their long-term future was in real jeopardy.

That’s a problem that Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, is grappling with every day. “Our biggest problem is perception,” he said.

With an unprecedented use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil plumes and constant stream of photographic images of oil-soaked beaches, pelicans, sea turtles, and dead fish washing ashore, the safety of Gulf seafood was called into question.

As the person responsible for shaping the image and leading the marketing efforts for the bounties of shrimp, fish, oysters, and other seafood that Louisiana’s seafood industry regularly harvests, Smith faces formidable odds in changing those perceptions. It’s not an unfamiliar fight to him either. Following Hurricane Katrina, questions were raised by members of the public and the media about the safety of consuming Gulf seafood, and given the dramatic television images, these concerns weren’t necessarily invalid.

Shrimp boats tow fire-resistant oil-containment boom as their crews conduct in situ burn training off the coast of Venice, La., May 3, 2010. The training is designed to help the local fisherman prepare to assist with possible future in situ burn operations. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley

In an interview in New Orleans in late August, Smith was quick to point out that a month after Katrina, Gulf seafood was tested by federal, state, and local government officials and independent authorities and deemed safe for consumption. With numerous boats and fishing infrastructure pieces lost because of Katrina, the Louisiana seafood industry as a whole was starting to return at a steady growth rate. Then came the oil spill. A fishing season that was forecast to have so much promise was interrupted and essentially ruined.

Smith explained that in the immediate weeks after the spill, BP gave $2 million dollars to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board to help with marketing and testing the safety of harvested seafood. At the time, BP, government, and other industry analysts thought the spill might be quickly contained and cleaned up. That was long before multiple techniques and attempts had been tried, and had failed, to stop the oil from spewing unabated.

Smith’s job, already tough enough, became even tougher. While almost a third of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from the waters off Louisiana’s shores, it was now Smith’s job to convince everyone that what he and the Louisiana seafood industry had to offer was safe for grocery stores, restaurants, and consumers. To do that, he and the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board had more than 27,000 samples taken from caught fish and shrimp from the Gulf and tested for safety. Each of those samples said the same thing – it was all safe to eat.

“What we know after all of these tests is the dispersant that was used does not bio-accumulate in the fish,” he said. “The dispersant is also 100 percent water soluble and doesn’t penetrate the flesh of the fish either. The tests are clean.”

Smith fully understands why people have their concerns. “The imagery has been burned in people’s minds and we have to counter that,” he said. “There was oil in the water and no one is interested in eating anything that might have been tainted.” It’s a lesson that he’s studied quite extensively when he looks at the fight that the Alaska seafood industry faced following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

“It took Alaska five years to clean that up and $10 million dollars a year in marketing to rebuild and re-strengthen their brand after that,” he said. “We don’t have five years here.”

Smith also understands the skepticism people have when he tells them the seafood is safe to eat. During a phone interview with a reporter from the Web site Daily Beast, Smith was told people didn’t believe the test results he and the Seafood Board were proclaiming. The reporter told him the Daily Beast would do its own independent tests to see if it was safe. Smith received a humble phone call days later from the same reporter, who explained that not only was the Gulf seafood safe, it was “immaculate.”

An industry that has already endured its share of losses because of national economic conditions, and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav, faces an uphill fight. Smith is ready for it.

U.S. Coast Guard crews conduct overflights of controlled burns taking place in the Gulf of Mexico May 19, 2010. During controlled burns, oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident was burned in an effort to reduce the amount of oil in the water. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer John Kepsimelis, Atlantic Strike Team

To turn the tide in the industry’s favor, Smith and the Seafood Board have been working closely with the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to better communicate the test results they have and continue to collect. They’ve also arranged a series of “dockside chats” between government officials, fishermen, and other industry people to talk about the future of the industry.

“We are not interested in putting anything on your dinner plate that we would not serve our own families,” Smith added.

He also has the White House in his corner. With a public declaration by the president that Louisiana seafood is safe to eat and Louisiana shrimp po’ boys on the menu at the White House, Smith and his team are working on plans to bring celebrity chefs to the Gulf to help with the messaging. In describing how celebrity chefs are “great ambassadors” for any food industry, Smith explained that the plans are to take the chefs out on boats to observe the catches, show them the fish processing and the testing to verify the product’s safety, and then turn whatever they’ve caught over to the chefs to do what they do best.

With aggressive multimedia campaigns under way and pleas to Washington and the Pentagon to engage in bulk seafood buys for school lunch programs and to feed U.S. military personnel around the world, Smith knows his time to turn things around is short. “With only 20 percent of the seafood fleet out in the water,” he knows that if they don’t get more boats out in the water and people buying Gulf seafood, “we’re going to lose the infrastructure” that makes the industry possible.

The fishing industry is not the only industry that finds its future at risk. Sportsmen entrepreneurs like Ryan Lambert of Cajun Fishing Adventures, who owns a number of hunting and fishing lodges in coastal Louisiana, find their future just as troubled. The accomplished outdoorsman and successful businessman has made an impressive living hosting fishermen and hunters from around the world, but he has seen his business immediately and adversely affected by the oil spill. Like the beachfront properties and shoreline condominiums that encountered rampant cancellations when the spill erupted, it became obvious to him that “no one wants to come to fish and hunt in oil.”

The only thing greater than his frustration at seeing his business suffer is the spill’s environmental consequences and the coastal erosion he sees every time he takes a group to fish or hunt.

“Louisiana has 41 percent of the country’s wetlands, and it’s lost a third of those in the past 50 years,” he said. “The day they blocked the Mississippi River with levees for flood control and navigation, this state started dying.”

The oil spill is just another tragic event that threatens not only his business, but a way of life in which he and other Gulf residents take great pride.

A marsh washer is deployed in Bay Jimmy Sept. 14, 2010, in order to flush pooled oil trapped on vegetation and soil out of the marsh for disposal. The marsh washer applies a 25 psi water stream no closer than 1 foot above marsh vegitation. The oily water in turn runs off the marsh and is picked up by skimmers, sorbent boom, or other means. The marsh washer is one of many new technologies being employed in cleanup response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Tamargo

An outspoken conservationist, Lambert has testified before Congress on coastal wetlands protection and restoration and has been interviewed by everyone from PBS NewsHour to Al Jezeera to offer his take on what needs to be done to save what they have left.

He has already seen disturbing signs of dead oyster beds and dead clams in surrounding estuaries that don’t bode well for the future of the birds and other wildlife.

As to the establishment of the $20 billion independent claim fund that BP created to pay Gulf Coast businesses and residents for the lost incomes that the spill caused, Lambert shared little hope that it would really cover the true costs of what has been lost. Lambert, like thousands of others, can make a legitimate claim against the fund for the lost business BP’s actions caused, but the one-time payment does not give him hope for the future.

He expressed that he was “scared to death to tell people to come down here and hunt and fish and years later someone gets sick. My life is on the line [with this business] and so are the 22 families that work on my lodges.”

Lambert’s anger and frustration in looking toward the future are similar to those of Jimmy Trapani of Bay St. Louis, Miss. The longtime owner of one of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s most popular restaurants, Trapani’s Eatery, Trapani and his family and employees have battled back from devastation before. When Katrina roared through Bay St. Louis five years ago, the coastal front restaurant was obliterated. Fighting his way through FEMA and Small Business Administration bureaucracies to get the loans to get back in business, he re-opened the restaurant on Highway 90, a short distance from where the business made its name and reputation.

While excited to have construction under way to rebuild and move his restaurant back to its original location, his anxiety over the region’s future was more than obvious. Sitting in his restaurant over a plate of blackened shrimp, a house specialty, he said, “I can handle a storm and move on from that, but there’s no moving on when that stuff [the oil] is still out there and people won’t come here to eat in restaurants, go into the water, or visit here. What the hell am I supposed to do to prepare this place [his restaurant] for that?”

Local fishermen Kevin McCrossen and Michael Pittman, from Venice, La., fish for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico near the southwest pass of the Mississippi River, Oct. 2, 2010. The weekend marked the first opening of the snapper fishing season after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and while all tests point to a healthy seafood industry, worries remain about the future. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Tamargo

Like many Gulf Coast residents, Lambert, Trapani, and even recently-elected New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu fully expect BP to find a way to “cut and run” from its responsibilities to the region.

None of the public promises by BP executives or its nearly $100 million advertising campaign unleashed after the spill promising to restore the Gulf communities, environment, and economy, have convinced Lambert, Trapani, and other residents that they will live up to their word.

While Lambert, Trapani, and other Gulf businesses and residents can submit claims to the independent claim fund, they openly wondered what the value of a forthcoming damages payment for this year’s losses would be if the oil still in the Gulf prevents people from coming to vacation or eat the fish in their restaurants in future. If the oil that has settled on the bottom of the Gulf washes up again in the future, residents and business owners fear what they have left will become a coastal ghost town.

Time is short as to deciding on whether to submit a damage claim to the BP-endowed claim fund. Businesses and residents that provide documentation to back up their claims can receive a damage payment from the federally administered fund, provided they submit their claims before the end of the 2010 calendar year. If they take the damage payment, they give up their right to sue BP for future damages from the spill.

By mid-October, BP stated it had already distributed more than $375 million for just over 120,000 claims. Gulf Coast residents and businesses are wrestling with the question of suing BP for damages greater than any settlement offer. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, court cases are ongoing and not everyone has the patience or resources to endure that long a fight. That long timeframe for a day in court has not stopped numerous law firms and trial lawyers from advertising all over the Gulf Coast, offering their services to go after BP in court.

The challenge for the disaster-weary Gulf Coast is knowing what the future will bring and whether they can hang on. Despite the relief of having the Deepwater Horizon well officially killed on Sept. 19 and no more oil flowing from the bottom of the Gulf in the weeks prior to that, anxiety remains real and raw. Having endured epic storms of Biblical proportions and a plague of oil that has stained their environment and lives for more than a generation, they are all concerned about what might happen next.

As Lambert explained while looking over one of his hunting lodges, “You can’t expect this all to be resolved with a check. This is our way of life that has been threatened.”

For him and other coastal residents, a hopeful future is hard to grasp after enduring so much, but they know they have each other and that’s what they depend on the most – in both good times and bad.

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2010-2011 Edition, and first appeared online on Nov 26, 2010.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...