The Environmental and Human Effects of the Deepwater Horizon (BP) Oil Spill

In April 2010, the British Petroleum (BP) oil rig the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, causing a break in a wellhead in the sea floor. Crude oil gushed from the blown wellhead for 87 days, at an estimated rate of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day, before BP was finally able to cap the leak in July, 2010.

At last estimate, the explosion had spilled almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf, devastating the coastlines, wetlands, and wildlife in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. To date, the Deepwater Horizon spill is considered one of the worst in history.

BP Oil Spill Explosion Photo taken June 22, 2010. Photo courtesy Dr. Oscar Garcia / Florida State University
BP Oil Spill Explosion Photo taken June 22, 2010. Photo courtesy Dr. Oscar Garcia / Florida State University

The Blowout

The Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded on the evening of April 20, 2010. The pressure and fire traveled up the umbilicus that connected the well to the rig, leading to a series of explosions on the actual rig.

In the hours before the rig finally sank to the bottom of the gulf, crew members fought through flying shrapnel, fireballs, smoking wreckage, and the searing heat of the lifeboat deck in an attempt to get to safety. Unable to use many of the lifeboats, some crew members jumped into the gulf waters 60 feet below the rig in an attempt to escape. All told, dozens of crew members were injured and eleven died in the accident. Accidents like these are considered inevitable, but the truth is that the blowout and spill could have been avoided.

Slack & Davis, a law firm that specializes in oil field accidents, says that oil and gas industry injuries are on the rise. This is due in large part to the increased demand for crude oil and natural gas, which has led many oil companies to take shortcuts leading to unsafe working conditions and a greater risk for pipeline explosions, blowouts, and other accidents.

The Deepwater Horizon had several redundant defenses specifically against the type of blowout that occurred. Yet every single one of those defenses failed either because they did not work, they were deployed too late, or weren’t deployed at all. Also, much of the crew lacked the requisite training to handle some of the more complex response systems.

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill was another of several oil- and gas-related accidents that were a direct result of the rush to procure oil, at the expense of worker safety.

Environmental Effects of the BP Spill

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, the fish and wildlife in the area suffered the effects of contact with the oil, including:

·  Sea birds lost their buoyancy and ability to regulate body temperature;

·  Animals that ingested the oil developed ulcers and internal bleeding;

·  Sea turtles coated in oil and unable to swim;

·  Dead fish and wildlife; and,

·  The death of sea corals.

The spill also caused damage to plant life that coastal animals rely on for survival.

The environmental impact didn’t stop after BP capped the spill. The region still suffered long-term effects. As of April 2014, four years after the spill, plants and wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico is still suffering.

There is still oil in the seabed which washes onto the beaches. Oil still remains in some of the marshes, even after the cleanup efforts. And there are also concerns about whether the materials used to clean up the spill have long-term environmental effects.

The aftermath has had an ongoing, deadly effect on 14 species of marine wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles, and tuna – especially along the Louisiana coast, where the bulk of the spill occurred.

But the environmental impact wasn’t the only thing to come out of the BP spill; there was also a significant human impact.

The Human Impact of the BP Spill

If ever we needed proof of man’s fate being inextricably linked to the fate of our environment, just take a look at the gulf coast in the wake of the BP spill.

Prior to the spill communities all along the Gulf coast relied on the wildlife along the coast for their very survival. Not only as part of the commercial fishing industries and the tourist and vacation industry, but as part of their daily lives. People in the region ate from the Gulf, and the wetlands in the area contributed to the local ecosystems. Also, the Louisiana part of the Gulf was still recovering from the economic and environmental effects of Hurricane Katrina, when the deadly Gulf spill occurred.

The spill, and the cleanup efforts that followed, caused damage to property, and contributed to health problems in both the local populations and the people who came down to participate in the cleanup efforts, and those effects still linger today.

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