I recently submitted an article on the behalf of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, discussing Hurricane Isaac’s impact on BP oil residues in the Gulf Coast. We also submitted several photos to accompany our article. We thank our partners at the Gulf Restoration Network for many of these photos and for their editorial guidance.
Risha Bera, Monitoring & Evaluation Associate, Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Before Isaac: Status of the Spill
In November 2011, the US Coast Guard approved BP’s plans to officially end oil spill cleanup in Gulf waters and to commence restoration initiatives along the Gulf coast, including Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. 
However, many people residing in states on the Gulf Coast of Mexico were not convinced that the oil spill cleanup was over. In March 2012, a spokesperson from the National Wildlife Federation noted that in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, “There were a few patches in the marsh that were completely devoid of vegetation… [The oil served] like a cap on the marsh surface—a hardened seal that blocks light and gas exchange, diminishes growth and creates a dead zone with little new life.”Further investigation led university researchers and other scientists to believe that Corexit dispersant-oil complexes settled at the bottom of the water column and contributed to unknown long-term impacts on local wildlife and the viability of the seafood industry.
Tropical storms before Hurricane Isaac had also reliably unearthed tarballs and oil debris onto Gulf Coast shorelines. Yet prior to Isaac’s landfall, a BP company spokesman reported that “consistent with the past two hurricane seasons, [the company does] not expect any significant impact of residual (Macondo) oil following Hurricane Isaac.”
Hurricane Isaac’s slow movement upon landfall in southeastern Louisiana provided plenty of opportunity for 80 mph winds to push material from the Gulf ocean floor upwards toward the surface, where currents then carried the material to shore. After the hurricane, one eyewitness in Florida reported, “[The BP spill] is NOT gone. It is definitely still washing up on shore. I saw a lot of brown muck with foam getting washed up on shore. The tidal pools along the beach at Fort Pickens were full of brown muck, black seashells and littered with tar balls up and down the beach.”
Representatives from GreenPeace and Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) visited the East and West Ship Islands, Mississippi, following the hurricane and also found clear evidence of dredged oil materials. Jonathan Henderson from GRN blogged, “For the most part, on East Ship, the impacts were in the form of tar balls of which we collected samples and will be sent to a lab for analysis. We found tar balls on both islands. On West Ship, we also found rainbow sheen in several locations. While it cannot be confirmed that the oil is from the BP Macondo well at this time, all indications were that it was oil seeping up from the beach sand on the Gulf side of the island.”
After finding liquid oil at Elmer’s Island, Louisiana officials restricted shrimping, crabbing, and fin fishing along a 13 mile stretch of the Louisiana coastline. On September 6, scientists at Louisiana State University and Auburn University confirmed physical and chemical consistency between the oil from BP’s Macondo well and debris found on Louisiana and Alabama coastlines. Following these announcements, BP issued a statement that the company would request permission from the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local authorities to “deep-clean” Louisiana’s affected beaches, including Elmer’s Island, Grand Isle, Grand Terre Island and Fourchon Beach.
Deep cleaning involves removing soil layers and sifting its contents to remove oil contaminants. Though the resulting soil has significantly less oil, the soil is also less firmly packed and thus loses some erosion resistance. This is a concern for Louisiana coastlines that protect against storm surges and provide habitats for migratory birds and endemic creatures that live in sand. Coastal scientist Len Bahr, who has advised many Louisiana governors, blogged that state officials “are (justifiably) concerned about both physical and ecological damage caused by dislodging sediments that have become relatively stable… I continue to believe that more harm than good will come from a mechanical cleanup.” As of October 26, local organizations, state authorities, and BP have not reached a consensus on how BP will eliminate traces of the 2010 oil spill from the Gulf coastline.
Going forward: two years and counting
In March 2012, BP settled for $7.8 billion with a diverse group of plaintiffs including apartment owners, fishermen, restaurant owners, and others whose business or livelihood was negatively impacted by the spill. On October 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that BP may pay civil penalties up to $21 billion under the Clean Air Act for the 2010 oil spill. Damages paid under the Clean Air Act, as opposed to the Oil Pollution Act (1990), allow state and local authorities to have greater control over how funds are spent.
Though BP is eager to wipe its hands clean of its mess, there is a clear and urgent need for the company to address environmental impacts occurring long after the 2010 oil spill. BP should continue to explore safe methods to restore environmentally sensitive areas and be cautious about success of prior remediation efforts. It is imperative that BP continues to survey Gulf waters and shorelines that are proximate to Macondo well. On October 11, 2012, BP confirmed the Coast Guard’s findings that a oil sheen near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig matched the composition of the 206 million gallons of oil released in 2010.
State and local enforcement authorities need to ensure that BP meets its corporate responsibilities through proper legal actions. This may include directing BP to provide monetary compensation for individuals affected by remaining oil spill residue or impacted by future remediation processes. Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and champion of environmental health and justice in New Orleans, projected that the Gulf will be affected for many years after the 2010 oil spill: “The fisheries crashed in Alaska years after the Valdez, and we are expecting the same devastation, the same tragedy here. We have already seen it begin – shrimp without eyes, visible tumors in our seafood. Let’s stop BP’s investment in commercials that tell us how great the Gulf is, and put that money into repairing the great harm they have done.”