Still fighting Gulf oil spill’s lasting impact

Dana Morton and Ryan Cummins with Escambia County’s Natural Resources Management Department are on a boat along Bayou Chico working on a nutrient reduction project funded by penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Bayou Chico is one of Escambia County’s three urban bayous that flow into Pensacola Bay.

Tears poured down the faces of people in Pensacola Beach at the sight of sands and animals soaked in oil.

Its creeping eastward scourge in June 2010, two months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, alarmed Panhandle residents. By that time, the oil already engulfed coastlines, shorebirds and dolphins in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The spill wreaked environmental and economic havoc, damaging ecosystems and discouraging tourists from visiting Gulf of Mexico beaches.

Even a decade after a cleanup effort that involved BP and stunted Gulf coastline economies because of the ecological disaster, worries remain about the lasting effects of oil that sank to the ocean bottom and chemicals used to treat the oil.

As Saturday marked 10 years since the Macondo oil well was confirmed sealed — two months after the well was capped — those who were affected by and studied the spill reflected on the lessons learned from the disaster.

“People have remarked that the next oil spill will be somewhere else in the world,” said John Shepherd, an Earth system scientist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, during a February conference of oil spill scientists. “We want to know how that knowledge of what we’ve learned from the Gulf of Mexico can be applied to

other places.”

An ecological disaster

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig — owned by the offshore drilling contractor Transocean and operated by oil company BP — exploded on April 20, 2010.

The blast killed 11 people and spilled about 200 million gallons of oil into the ocean for 87 days.

Its amount is comparable to about 19 Exxon Valdez oil spills, which involved 11 million gallons of oil spilling into Prince William Sound after the oil tanker ran aground on March 24, 1989, in Alaska’s Bligh Reef.

But the Deepwater Horizon estimate may be a conservative one, according to research published in February.

A study by University of Miami researchers, published in the journal Science Advances, found a fraction of “invisible oil” by using remote sensing data and in-water sampling to uncover a portion of the spill that satellites and aerial imaging didn’t identify.

Researchers concluded there was a larger extent to the spill than originally thought.

“Our 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,” said Claire Paris, senior author of the study and a professor of ocean sciences at UM.

After the Deepwater Horizon rig capsized and sank, underwater cameras discovered crude oil and natural gas leaking from a malfunctioned blowout preventer, which is a well-head safety device designed to prevent oil from leaking out of pipes, according to state documents.

A drill pipe that was buckled and off-center inside the blowout preventer is believed to have caused the spill, according to investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Oil left a tarry, black, sludgy path along the turquoise-colored Gulf waters and the sugar-white sandy beaches. It befouled about 16,000 miles of coastline across five states, including parts of Florida’s Panhandle.

It remains the most disastrous oil spill in U.S. history, having left a corrosive path that seeped into beaches and estuaries, with its noxious slicks killing and injuring wildlife.

As many as 105,400 sea birds, 7,600 adult and 160,000 juvenile sea turtles died from oil damaging their habitats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coral reefs and oyster beds suffered losses from the spill. Up to 51% of the dolphins in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay — one of the most heavily oiled areas during the disaster — died as well, according to NOAA.

“It was emotionally devastating,” said Chuck Wilson, chief science officer with the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a BP-funded oil spill research organization. “People asked, ‘How long would it persist?’ You just worry about the habitat you’ve been studying all your career and how it will survive.”

Oil that blew out from the rig spared no type of habitat that the Gulf of Mexico’s marine mammals inhabit, according to NOAA.

“The damage ranged from wetlands and beaches all the way down to the organisms on the sea floor,” NOAA stated.

Escambia County was Florida’s hardest hit county, receiving 97% of the spilled oil that reached Florida, according to county staff. Fifty-two miles of shoreline were oiled.

Tar balls washed ashore on Panhandle beaches in the years after the spill, souvenirs of the oil’s imprint on Gulf waters. That, coupled with the effects of chemical dispersants used to break oil down into smaller droplets, has scientists concerned about where the oil went after the spill.

They think the Gulf environment hasn’t fully healed from the spill, even if clean beaches and oceans suggest it appears healthier on the surface.

Tourism sinks

Oil halted fishing, visits to the beach and outdoor recreation along the Gulf, according to NOAA.

No matter how small the amount of oil on a Panhandle beach, whether giant tarry streaks blistering the sand or small quarter-sized droplets, it was near impossible to convince tourists to visit.

Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties all lost more than 20 percent in lodging revenue from June to August 2010 compared with the same period in 2009, according to Escambia County’s visitor and convention bureau.

Matthew Allen is the park manager at Grayton Beach State Park, a park with pristine beaches and scrub oak-lined trails located a mile and a half from the master planned community of Seaside. The impact of oil on Grayton Beach was far from what Pensacola Beach experienced, as Allen recalled only “a few specks.”

“Everything they got, they would have been able to fit into a sandwich bag,” he said.

Prior to Deepwater Horizon, tar balls from other, smaller oil spills would wash ashore every two to three years, Allen said. They were “as bad or worse” than the oil from the 2010 spill that reached Grayton Beach. His memories of oil on beaches go back to him stepping on tar balls in Panama City Beach when he was a teenager.

He said he’s grateful that Grayton Beach was spared the worst.

“Deepwater Horizon was horrific because it was man-caused and affected a lot of areas,” Allen said. “We were preparing for the worst and blessed we didn’t get the worst.”

Yet, the large scale of the spill in the Gulf and public perception of oil being more widespread led tourists to avoid Panhandle beaches, oil or no oil.

Visitors avoiding the Panhandle beaches caused heavy losses among businesses that depend on beach tourism for survival.

At the time of the spill, Denise Dobelek owned two rental properties at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. She, too, recalled only a small handful of oil droplets appearing on Destin’s beaches.

It was enough to scare the tourists away.

“We were personally and financially devastated,” said Dobelek, who recently sold her rental properties and moved to the Village of Marsh Bend. “And all in all, we got six oil balls. This was because of the impression that there was more oil.”

Charter boats and fishing shut down

Boating and fishing businesses effectively were shut down because of the oil spill. More than 88,000 square miles of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico were closed while cleanup efforts occurred, state documents showed.

No tour boats, fishing charters or commercial anglers could operate.

And even if they could, people weren’t coming to the Panhandle. Many tourists were spooked by images of thick black globs tarring the Emerald Coast’s white sands.

“A lot of people want to eat the fish they catch and don’t want to pay a lot of money for seafood that may have been contaminated with oil and/or dispersants,” said Susan Gros, of the Village of Tamarind Grove, who ran a fishing charter in Venice, Louisiana, that went out of business after the oil spill.

Many boat operators who lost business to the disaster were called upon to assist in the months-long cleanup effort. Gros was not one of them, as she was recovering from ankle surgery at the time the cleanup began.

BP hired crews from these charters through a program called Vessels of Opportunity, paying them for services including recovering oil, transporting supplies and rescuing wildlife. The company stated it paid more than $73.2 million in 2010 to fund this program.

One of the participating businesses was Entertainer Charters in Pensacola Beach. The company operates fishing charters aboard the boats Entertainer, a 65-foot, custom built boat that can seat 49 people and is outfitted with a sofa, giant bar area and bunk beds for overnight trips, and Big Zulu II, which offers a 39-foot venture center console and can cruise at 38 mph, nearly double the speed of the Entertainer’s 20 mph.

Capt. Jerry Andrews, who’s owned Entertainer Charters since the 1980s, depends on tourism to stay afloat. He does a small bit of commercial fishing during the offseason, but the vast majority of his business — 90% of it, he estimates ­— is built around visitors to the Gulf booking trips on his boats.

When the oil spill and the shutdown of Gulf waters put his business on hold, BP hired Andrews and his crew to help with various tasks related to the cleanup. They were stationed in Theodore, Alabama, about 18 miles southwest of Mobile, and were sent 65 miles offshore the following day. His charter boat license allows him to go 65 miles offshore.

Cleaning up the oil — which looked like caramel to Andrews — proved a challenge to the crew.

Fumes from the oil sickened some workers.

“I remember the fumes were so bad your eyes were burning inside the wheelhouse, toxins and all,” he said.

An air quality supervisor would use a device to take a reading of the air where the workers were to check for pollutants. But Andrews couldn’t remember a moment when the device’s readings would turn up a result other than “normal.”

“I think it was rigged,” he said.

If workers didn’t get sick from oil exposure, they suffered exhaustion from the heat and humidity, Andrews said. A medic on the boat cared for sick workers.

Andrews saw crews burning oil and using chemical dispersants to break up the oil into smaller droplets. A total of 1.84 million gallons of dispersants — 1.07 million gallons on the surface and about 770,000 gallons on the sea floor — were applied in the cleanup effort, according to NOAA.

Andrews had little business after the Gulf of Mexico reopened, but Gulf fishing gradually saw improvements in the years after.

As for the actual fisheries, he’s noticed fewer reef fish in the years following the spill. He’s not sure if it’s because of the effects of dispersants, which scientific studies say create a toxic environment for fish and aquatic wildlife, or because of a greater presence of predators like sharks and dolphins that eat the reef fish.

“There’s more sharks than I’ve ever seen in all my time fishing,” Andrews said. “And they eat a lot of the fish we catch.”

Research outcomes

Answering such questions about how oil spills impact environments became a priority after Deepwater Horizon.

BP funding led to the creation of an independent research organization, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, centered on scientific research that identifies the environmental and public health implications of Deepwater Horizon and other oil spills. The oil company committed $500 million over a 10-year period to study how the spill impacted the Gulf.

Its scientists received 267 research grants for various studies during its run, according to the Gulf of Mexico Alliance’s Deepwater Horizon Project Tracker.

Wilson, the research initiative’s chief science officer, told the Daily Sun that the past decade’s studies of the Gulf yielded much progress.

“We answered a lot of questions,” he said. “We have created a database that will persist well into the future. We have created a community built around oil spill science in general.”

Wilson, a Baltimore native, made Louisiana his home and held faculty and administrative posts at Louisiana State University from 1984 to 2012. When the spill happened, he felt despondent at the thought of the habitat he was close to through his entire career as a coastal scientist being imperiled by the oil blobs that overwhelmed the shorelines, the result of a man-made disaster.

A decade later, there have been signs of improvement.

But finding the answers to other questions about the health of the Gulf, such as how the oil affected the long term health of dolphin populations, remains ongoing, Wilson said.

Understanding the disaster is key to preventing future disasters, as Wilson and many university and government scientists discussed when they met February in Tampa for the research initiative’s Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference (GoMOSES).

What was apparent from the gathering of scientists was that the Deepwater Horizon disaster inspired a far greater number of scientific studies than other large oil spills that affected U.S. waters.

Neither Ixtoc I, an exploratory oil well that exploded on June 3, 1979, in Mexico and spilled about 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, nor Exxon Valdez, the 1989 spill in Alaska, inspired this level of research, said Steve Sempier, deputy director and outreach director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.

“Few research documents exist on both,” he said. “But more than 1,700 exist for Deepwater.”

Preventing the next spill

Memories of oil tarring the Gulf of Mexico are etched into the heads of Floridians aiming to prevent another disaster from reaching Florida’s coastlines.

That memory was key when in 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment banning oil drilling in state waters. The amendment passed with 68% of the vote.

Keeping Florida’s waters clean also was on the mind when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who opposes oil drilling in the state — announced in January that the state government would purchase 20,000 acres of wetlands in the Everglades to prevent a private landowner from using the land for oil drilling.

And President Donald Trump, now a permanent resident of Florida, signed a presidential order on Sept. 8 extending a moratorium on drilling in federal waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for 10 years. He previously expressed interest in expanding oil drilling in the Gulf.

The order also expanded the moratorium, which was set to expire in June 2022, to include Florida’s Atlantic coast, Georgia and South Carolina.

“This protects your beautiful gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come,” Trump said just before signing the order in Jupiter.

Prior to Trump’s order, Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, had worked on pushing a moratorium extension through Congress.

Rubio expressed support for a permanent ban on offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf.

“I will continue working with the Administration and my colleagues in Congress, to secure a permanent legislative solution that cannot be undone by a future Administration,” he said in a Sept. 8 statement.

Prior to the moratorium’s extension, the Trump administration touted safer oil drilling procedures.

In a statement issued on the Deepwater Horizon spill’s 10-year anniversary, the U.S. Department of the Interior stated its Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s inspections in 2019 increased 46% from 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Safety initiatives in 2019 increased 300% from 2016 as well, said Rob Wallace, the Interior’s assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

“These more robust safety initiatives and increased inspections are vital to making energy development in the Gulf safer,” he said.

When asked what the Deepwater Horizon oil spill changed about the Gulf of Mexico, Andrews, the charter boat captain, paused for a moment. He then said he thought the disaster changed people’s perspectives about oil and the oil industry, including an increase in many Floridians’ opposition to drilling off Florida’s coasts.

But even if an oil rig is never built just miles from the shores of Perdido Key, the southwest flow of currents near existing oil rigs in the Gulf could put Florida at risk of damage from another spill.

“Everything comes up the mouth of that Mississippi River, it moves to the east straight of where we are,” Andrews said. “So if anything happens to any rig, it’s going to wind up off of Florida because of the way the current flows, regardless of if there’s a rig offshore of Florida.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.