Protesters threw flowers into the Mississippi River and railed against oil giant BP on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the blowout that unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in American history.
The April 20, 2010 blowout off Louisiana killed 11 men aboard the drill rig Deepwater Horizon and unleashed a gusher that spewed crude into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. Several dozen environmental activists marked the date with a commemoration in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where they threw 11 white roses into the river and called for BP to step up its efforts to restore the Gulf Coast after the disaster.
"It's so incredible to think that there's nothing we can do to hold them accountable," said Brooke Schueller, who marched through the streets of New Orleans dressed as an oiled bird — complete with chocolate sauce smeared on her skin. "So many efforts have been made, and they all seem to be too little too late or kind of pushed by the wayside. I find it extremely frustrating and kind of heartbreaking to see this amazing, amazing natural resource literally disappearing before our eyes, not to mention being doused in oil."
Demonstrators also held a fresh protest outside BP's headquarters in Houston, where six Gulf-state activists were arrested in another demonstration last week. They tried to deliver a petition with about 117,000 signatures to demand the company "clean up its act," Gulf Restoration Network Communications Director Raleigh Hoke told VICE News. A company official refused to accept the petitions, which were assembled by Hoke's organization and the environmental organizing group Care2, he said.
"They're continuing to actively push against the science and try to muddy the water with their PR campaign and their army of lawyers," Hoke said.
Louisiana bore the brunt of the spill, and many in the state's fishing communities say their livelihoods have yet to recover from the disaster. In particular, state records show the oyster haul from the once-rich beds off the east bank of the Mississippi River have plummeted to a third or less of their pre-spill averages.
Renata Heurich — who came to the New Orleans protest dressed in an elaborate oiled pelican costume — said recent news that the oil industry is seeking new permits in the Gulf was disheartening.
"It doesn't look we've learned anything," said Heurich, a member of the climate action group 350 Louisiana. "Instead of switching to renewables, we're doubling down."
Scientists are still trying to figure out what has caused that collapse. It followed Louisiana's attempt to flush oil out of the ecologically rich marshes by opening Mississippi spillways, upsetting the balance of salt and fresh water oysters need to survive — but oystermen say the reefs have always rebounded from similar events in the past, and that hasn't happened yet.
Buras oysterman Matthew Slavich told VICE News last week that efforts to restore the reefs have shown some promise, "but overall, things are still very down."
Ahead of the anniversary, BP put out a report declaring that the worst predicted consequences of the spill failed to materialize and touting the "resilience" of the Gulf environment in the wake of the spill. But scientists say it's too soon to give the waterway a clean bill of health.
The disaster has cost BP about $35 billion to date, including more than $14 billion in cleanup costs, nearly $14 billion more in compensation to people and businesses and $4 billion in criminal fines after it pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of the workers on the rig. It faces nearly $14 billion more in penalties under the federal Clean Water Act, most of which will be earmarked for restoration projects around the Gulf region.
The company already has put up about $1 billion for restoration work. And on the spill's anniversary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — which is leading an ongoing damage assessment and restoration effort — announced plans for $134 million in new restoration projects paid for out of that fund. The projects include restoring shorelines and bird habitats in Alabama, boosting seagrass recovery in Florida, restoring reefs in coastal Mississippi and sea turtle habitats across the Gulf, NOAA said.
BP marked the anniversary with a fact sheet emphasizing the restoration efforts it has supported and noting the deaths on the rig: "Today, especially, we remember those people and their loved ones."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl