Report: 10 Years After Worst US Oil Spill, Little Has Changed

A decade after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a lack of safety protocols and inadequate government oversight has not reduced the likelihood of a disaster on the same scale, a conservation group says.  

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010. (Photo via U.S. Coast Guard/Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON (CN) – In the decade since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion pumped a record-breaking 210 million gallons of petroleum into the sea, a report released Tuesday finds offshore drilling is no safer today as standards have relaxed and the Trump administration pushes to expand it. 

Published by the conservation group Oceana, the findings are a startling reminder of the April 2010 disaster that killed 11 rig workers, caused billions of dollars in damage and uprooted entire communities, divorcing many from their homes, their work and their good health after being exposed to both crude oil and the chemical dispersants used to quell the blowout.

“The poor safety culture and inadequate government oversight that set the stage for catastrophe persists,” the report states. “If anything, another disaster is more likely, because the industry is drilling deeper and farther offshore, which increases the likelihood of a spill and makes responding to a spill more difficult.”

By the numbers, the impact on wildlife was also devastating, the report found. For five years following the initial explosion, over 75% of pregnancies in the region’s dolphin population failed. Bryde’s whale populations plummeted in the Gulf of Mexico, dropping roughly 22% overall. Nearly 800,000 birds are estimated to have died and up to 170,000 sea turtles were killed.

Notably, 600 sea turtles washed ashore during cleanup, Oceana found, and some 75% in that group alone were the endangered species known as Kemp’s ridley turtles.

This level of damage is preventable but a persistent lack of oversight on safety for the oil industry on the federal level has likely only increased the chances that the U.S. will see another Deepwater Horizon-style disaster again, the report found.

(Image courtesy of Oceana)

For example, from 2011 to 2016, the Interior Department agency known as the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement continually relied on outdated recommendations for inspection and regularly issued waivers for drilling safety requirements.

These practices continued into 2017 when President Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing regulations on offshore oil and gas operations despite considerable pushback from Republican and Democratic governors alike on the east and west coasts of the United States.

Despite red lights left blinking after the 2010 explosion, the Trump administration’s Interior Department has forged ahead with its plans for offshore exploits. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced this March that it generated $93 million in bids for a tract in the Gulf of Mexico that spans 78 million acres.

The highest bidders were Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, the latter of which ran the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. 

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science professor Donald Boesch, who also served on the national commission tasked to investigate the causes of the Deepwater Horizon spill, has concluded that “systemic failures in risk management” and regulatory failures led to the initial catastrophe.

Adding to those longstanding concerns, he told Courthouse News on Tuesday, are new anxieties around how external factors like the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting sharp decline of oil prices could potentially “create a situation where mistakes are made in offshore operations that reduce safety and risk accidents.”

Enforcing safety standards and levying penalties for violators was a tall order before.

“It seems to me that the primary public health risk now that is related to offshore oil drilling and production concerns offshore workers, who spend weeks in close quarters, almost like they are on a cruise, and then disperse back home to wherever they live, potentially transmitting the virus,” Boesch said.

Oceana’s report also highlighted the impact the spill had on area businesses, laborers and others who were on the frontlines. Many of the exposed reported a range of health problems, including tightness of the chest and burning in the nose, eyes and lungs, which in some cases continued for years.

(Image courtesy of Oceana)

Risks posed to offshore workers remain great, noted Diane Hoskins, campaign manager for Oceana.

“Too many American offshore workers are dying or still getting injured on the job today,” she said. “From 2017 to 2018, there were 48 fatalities and 3,000 injuries. There’s a fire or explosion that erupts, on average, every three days in federal waters.”

Oceana called on the Trump administration to place a moratorium on offshore drilling, noting the widespread bipartisan support from a diverse group of lawmakers who fear the damage of another spill could upend their communities and wreck local economies.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday.

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