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Tar Balls, Disappearing Islands, and 'Unexplained Mortality Events': Five Years After the BP Disaster

Many questions about the extent of environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico remain unresolved, say scientists.

by Matt Smith
Apr 20 2015, 2:55pm

Photo by Matt Smith

The row of plastic bags on the table has the look of a police news conference after a major drug bust, but the brownish-black contents aren't bricks of hash. 

They're tar balls — clumps of oily residue and sand left behind from the undersea blowout that erupted in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago today. They range in size from marbles to softballs, and many still smell like asphalt when broken open. The three dozen bags are what Roy Collins collected by walking the beaches east of Mobile Bay in March.

Collins is the point man for beach cleanup at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). He led a weekend oil-spotting class for about a dozen people in Gulf Shores, Alabama, telling them what to look for and who to call when they find it.

Bags of tar balls collected on Alabama's beaches in March 2015 are on display at an oil-spotting seminar in Gulf Shores. (Photo by Matt Smith)

The drill rig Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, sending 11 men to a watery grave and uncorking a gusher nearly a mile beneath the surface. Before the disaster, tar balls typically popped up on Alabama's beaches once or twice a mile, ADEM estimates. Now Collins regularly finds a dozen or two on stretches of less than half a mile, and some of the larger, more irregular pieces appear to be pieces of a larger tar mat that Collins suspects is hidden offshore.

"No matter what you see on the beach, there's a lot more that's in the water," Collins told VICE News.

Since the large-scale cleanup effort ended in July 2013, ADEM — which means mostly Collins at this point — has identified nearly 2,200 pounds of oily residue chemically fingerprinted to the disaster. Much of it has washed up around Fort Morgan, on a spit of sand that's home to a wildlife refuge and the nests of endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles.

"I can find tar pretty much any time I go out there," said Collins.

The Gulf Coast is a hard-luck, blue-collar place, constantly poked and scraped to feed Americans' cravings for seafood — and petrochemicals. Its dazzling white sand and teeming wetlands dance cheek-to-cheek with oil and gas rigs. Large stretches still bear decade-old scars from Hurricane Katrina. Every hour, a football field's worth of Louisiana's rich coastal marsh gives way to the sea. Environmentalists often call it a "sacrifice zone," an area written off in pursuit of profit.

It has absorbed many an insult, and appears to have rolled with much of the Deepwater Horizon punch. BP, the oil company responsible for the disaster, certainly thinks so: as the fifth anniversary neared, it put out a report that highlighted tales of recovery and scientific studies that found high survival rates among birds and fish that many feared would be devastated by the spill.

"Since the accident, we made a commitment to keep the American people informed of our progress responding to it," the company's chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said in a written statement. "The report that we released in March is consistent with that commitment. We remain committed to restoring those natural resources that reliable data and science determine the spill injured."

But scientists say it's too early to resolve many of the lingering question marks. Steve Murawski, a University of South Florida marine ecologist who has studied fish populations since the spill, told VICE News that it took five years for Alaskan herring stocks to collapse after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. And scientists are now looking at whether oil is imapcting Gulf species in ways that will make it harder for some to survive.

For instance, Murawski said the number of young red snapper has gone down in the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River, while the numbers are up to the west.

"Is that an effect of Deepwater Horizon or is that just sort of natural fluctuation?" he asked. "I think it's kind of interesting that the two patterns diverge right at 2010, but I don't know."

A sweeping federal study of the environmental impact remains unresolved and largely under wraps while the data is being analyzed. Most of those answers will have to be teased out of the vast quantities of data collected in the past five years — but in a few spots, the hurt is dramatically visible.

Before 2010, Cat Island was a two-acre bird habitat anchored by dense black mangroves in Louisiana's Barataria Bay. All that's left today is a roughly 75-foot sandbar surrounded by mangrove stumps, which form a kind of ghostly outline of the old island contours. The sole inhabitants are a pair of oystercatchers that circle impatiently while gawkers survey what remains.

Cat Island, in Louisiana's Barataria Bay, has been reduced to a sandbar since the Deepwater Horizon spill. (Photo by Matt Smith)

Satellite photos of Cat Island a year before and four years after the spill show how much the island's size has diminished. (Images via National Wildlife Federation)

"The oil killed the black mangroves and the root system that held this island in place," the National Wildlife Federation's Emily Guidry Schatzel told VICE News. "So when the mangroves were hit, the birds stopped coming because the island basically just dissolved."

On nearby Isle Grand Terre, a 12.5-ton tar mat was unearthed from the beach just days after BP issued its 5-year report. Tar mats topping 1,000 pounds have been found as far east as Pensacola, Florida.

Murawski called BP's five-year report "a somewhat selective and incomplete job."

"They didn't talk a lot about some of the published studies that indicate a substantial fraction of that oil remains on the bottom, and it remains toxic," he said. "They kind of dismissed that."

BP disputes that any oil is unaccounted for. After a January study concluded that up to 10 million gallons of crude may have settled among sediment on the Gulf floor, the company said, "There is no missing oil … Oil was dissolved, evaporated, diluted, biodegraded, photo-oxidated (chemical reactions caused by exposure to sunlight) or removed by offshore and shoreline response operations where feasible."

But Casi Callway, the head of the Alabama environmental group Mobile Baykeeper, told VICE News that BP's credibility has been shredded. In January, a federal judge found "no dispute" that the company initially lied about the amount of oil released.

"Wasn't it BP who said there was only 1,000 gallons a day being released?" she asked. "So I don't trust BP, and I don't think anyone else should, either." 

Robert Haddad, one of the leaders of the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment, said the work is still "very much in the assessment and evaluation process." But in e-mailed answers to questions from VICE News, Haddad laid out several questions the study is examining.

"Some of the deep-sea corals that were impacted by the spill were hundreds of years old. How long will it take them to recover — if they ever do?" wrote Haddad, a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Some of the species of juvenile sea turtles that made it out to sea through the slicks and survived will not likely return to lay eggs for decades," he said. "Will they return? How many of them? How long will the spill-related unusual mortality event for dolphins last? Will the dolphins of Barataria Bay recover?"

Drill rigs in port in Pascagoula, Mississippi loom over a nearby coastal marsh. (Photo by Matt Smith)

In its March report on the disaster, BP said there was no evidence linking the spill to the deaths of dolphins in the northern Gulf, where the sea mammals' mortality has been running far above normal for the past five years. The "unexplained mortality event" began two months before the blowout. But NOAA says similar events have typically been short-lived. Dolphins in Barataria Bay are suffering from lung and adrenal problems "consistent with effects of exposure to oil or petroleum-related chemicals in other animal studies," the agency says.

BP has paid about $30 billion in cleanup costs, compensation to businesses, and scientific research into the spill. It's also paid $4 billion in criminal fines after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of the rig workers. And it faces the prospect of nearly $14 billion more in penalties under the Clean Water Act after a judge found the blowout to be the result of gross negligence.

Critics say the company has been trying to get off the hook by downplaying the extent of the damages and launching an aggressive public relations campaign against what it calls "fraud" in the compensation process. But Morrell said BP's accusers "have the same incentives to paint the Gulf in a poor light as they claim BP does to credit its recovery." 

Related: Five years after BP disaster, Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry continues to struggle

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl