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Five years since the world’s worst oil accident

4._news-cat-island-oil-vin~ Examining one habitat's demise ~

By Lisa Davis-Burnett

In 2010, prior to the April 20 blow out of Deepwater Horizon, British Petroleum's (BP) offshore drilling rig, the wetlands of the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline supported a web of wildlife. Innumerable tiny islands created a unique latticework of life supporting structures. The habitat was a haven for birds, fish, shellfish, reptiles, amphibians, and innumerable microscopic flora and fauna upon which the food chain is dependent. Fisher folk, restaurateurs and those who enjoy the Gulf Coast's rich supply of seafood were also dependent upon those wetlands.

During the spring and into the summer of 2010, the world watched, horrified, as raw crude oil gushed out of a broken pipe more than a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico waters near New Orleans. Known by various names such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Cofferdam leak, the Macondo blowout, the Gulf oil spill or the BP oil spill, it stands alone at the top of a sad list of environmental disasters attributed to the drilling and/or transportation of petroleum oil.

Submersible cameras allowed us to see the broken pipe with its surging black oil roiling into the sea, and day after day, week after week, the months ticked off and still the engineers failed to cap the leak. It took 87 days to stop it. This Wednesday will be exactly five years since the oil stopped leaking. Even today, nobody knows why the giant rig's blow out preventer failed that night, but the record is clear that shortcuts were made and best procedures were not followed. Eleven men died in the initial explosion and 17 were injured.

British Petroleum lowballed it when publicly admitted on April 29 that between 1000 and 5000 barrels a day were leaking out. Official estimates increased to 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day on May 27 and then jumped to 25,000 and 30,000 barrels per day on June 10. Five days later, it was up to a whopping 35,000 and 65,000 barrels per day. Internal BP documents, released by Congress, estimated the flow could be as much as 100,000 barrels per day, if the blowout preventer and wellhead were removed.

In the year before the explosion, the company's profits had been 14 billion. With pockets that deep, their vow to spare no expense to make the situation right seemed hopeful. But during those months, it seemed no amount of money could make this right. In fact, no one knew how to stop the leak, or if it were even possible. BP and other experts feared that their attempts to fix it might make it worse; perhaps causing the well to fail deep below the sea floor and then the flow would essentially never stop until the reservoir was depleted.

BP ATTEMPTED a series of procedures to stop the leak. Their first effort might have worked but for a build-up of methane crystals on the cofferdam structure they had hoped to place over the leak. The second "plan" was to plug the leak with drilling mud and junk. Literally junk: golf balls, tennis balls, tangles of hemp rope, wads of nylon webbing, strips of rubber, cubes of hard plastic, maybe even an old sneaker or two thrown in. From May 26 to 29, they tried this approach multiple times. Predictably, it didn't work. By June, another engineering procedure was on the drawing boards. The thinking had shifted from trying to plug or cap the well to trying to place an unpressurized "top hat" on the leak. This shift in thinking was a response to concerns that the plugging of the leaking riser pipe might force a full rupture of the well.

From the early days of the crisis, BP had been spraying dispersant chemicals on the sea from airplanes. By August, two million gallons of dispersants had been applied to the sea, nearly half of that was unprecedently sent directly to the sea floor at the site of the leak. This move has been highly criticized, as the dispersants are very toxic chemicals with unknown consequences to the environment. Many claimed that BP's decision to use dispersants was based on public relations rather than science, thinking that if people didn't see the oil they wouldn't be so critical of the failure of the BP team to solve the problems.

OFF SHORE of Louisiana and Mississippi, the network of small, low-lying sandy islands of mangroves and grasses waited to receive the slime, the gunk, the clots and the tar. What had been pristine and secluded breeding grounds, nesting sites, and rest stops for migratory birds became ground zero for a multi-stage environmental disaster. The oil attached the shore of the islands, coating birds, sea life and vegetation. Once the vegetation began to die, the roots failed to keep the oil in place. In the past five years, the mangroves have died, and the islands have deteriorated.

One such island was Cat Island. At almost six acres, it was one of the four largest rookeries in Louisiana for snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, brown pelicans, least terns and a variety of other sea birds. It stood against the waves with abundant mangroves and grasses to hold the sediment together. In full disclosure, the readers should know that WEEKender's coordinator and author of this article is the aunt of Natalie Peyronnin, a researcher keeping tabs on Cat Island and other threatened wetlands habitats.

Peyronnin, Director of Science Policy for the Environmental Defense Fund and PJ Hahn Coastal Zone Director for Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana visited Cat Island recently to assess the situation. They found very little left, and virtually no birds or mangroves. The loss is having an impact on the migratory birds, many of whom were already threatened. "US Wildlife and Fisheries studies show that chicks, when they're born, imprint on their birth location. So every year, they return to the same place to breed and nest. And the studies also show that if the location is [inaccessible or] gone, they don't go somewhere else to breed, they just don't breed," Hahn explained.

"This is essentially one of the longest running disasters in the US," said Peyronnin, "Five years later, oil is still coming ashore here and will continue to come ashore as scientists have found immense tar balls and oil still remaining at the bottom of the Gulf. Ultimately, what this means down the road here, we don't know. We know when the oil spill hit, in the first 95 days, over 800,000 birds perished. What does that mean for the long term stability of those populations?"

There is an effort to bring back Cat Island – that means replanting the mangroves. Without fast action, Peyronnin believes the islands will be completely gone by this time next year.

Oil company BP agreed on July 2 of this year to pay US $18.7 billion over 18 years to settle civil lawsuits over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of this money is earmarked for compensation of lost wages but also efforts to rebuild and research the Gulf ecosystem. BP's final bill for the disaster is estimated to be around $54 billion, but the real cost in lives lost, families disrupted, communities damaged, cultural heritage severed, and environmental richness poisoned may never be known.

Information in this article is sourced from BP Global, Scientific American, BBC,, Wikipedia,, National Geographic and Natural Resources Defense Council. National Geographic Online has focused on the current status of Cat Island and other similar offshore habitats. A video can be seen at