When you pull out of Myrtle Grove, a boat landing 40km miles south of New Orleans, it is hard to believe the BP oil spill ever happened.
The water is clean and fresh, murky only because of a recent storm. Fish regularly flash to the surface. The little community of waterfront houses, owned by commuters who do the 30-minute run into the city or by amateur fishermen who use them as second homes, is prosperous and well-kept. There is a healthy new season’s growth of bright green marsh grass along the sides of the bayous, the mazy network of waterways that crisscrosses the marshes of southern Louisiana. The only sounds are the cries of seabirds above the hum of the boat’s engine, and there is not a trace of oil to be seen.
Last summer, this spot was a scene of frantic activity. BP had trailers and tents lined up on the shoreline, making a forward base for hundreds of clean-up workers who would gather at 7am every morning for a day of desperate struggle to keep the oil out of the marsh. Workers in protective suits laid miles of white absorbent boom, like cotton wool stuffed into stockings, pulling it up when it was soaked in oil. A mobile platform was set up for the crews to work from, its legs planted in the mud. Today all that has vanished like a bad dream.
Further out towards the Gulf of Mexico, however, there is still oil to be seen. The effects of the spill, like the oil itself, may be fading from view, but are lingering still, subtler and possibly more insidious. And the landscape here is facing other threats that are likely to prove ultimately more destructive.
The spill that followed the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20 last year, which killed 11 men, was the largest ever accidental release of oil offshore. For 87 days, BP’s ruptured Macondo well, about 130 miles south-east of New Orleans, gushed oil into the waters of the gulf, at a maximum rate of 62,000 barrels per day, as the company, the US government and the best brains in the industry battled vainly to plug it. Broadcast live around the clock on television news, the unfolding disaster brought BP, Britain’s largest industrial company, to the brink of collapse, and marked a turning-point in Americans’ assessment of Barack Obama.
As the oil swept into the fragile wetlands of Louisiana, a region where fishing and seafood are vital to the economy and culture, the fear of the potential damage was intense.
A year on, it is clear that the most apocalyptic prophecies were far removed from reality. BP has not come close to having “killed” the Gulf of Mexico, as was sometimes said last year. Catches for fish and shrimp – prawns, as the British know them – have generally been good, often ahead of last year’s levels, and the US government’s Food and Drug Administration has pronounced them safe to eat. Prices are sometimes down from pre-spill levels, possibly because of lingering nervousness about contamination, but some shrimpers say they are still making good money.
Out in Barataria Bay, heading towards the sea from Myrtle Grove, the idea of the gulf coast as a dead zone seems even more ludicrous. Squadrons of brown pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana whose oil-soaked bodies created some of the most powerful images of the spill, swoop overhead. A little island that serves as a nesting ground is alive with calls, and crowded with brown and white pelicans, terns, and the vivid pink flashes of roseate spoonbills. Schools of dolphins play among the oil and gas pipelines and small platforms scattered across the water, a reminder of the intimate relationship here between the industry and the natural world.
Last summer, the currents brought a thick slick of oil into this bay that would leave a 6in stain on the side of a boat. Today most of it has gone, but not all. Out of sight of any houses, in spots only accessible by boat, the clean-up crews are still at work. In two places, work gangs of about two dozen people are scraping oil from patches of marsh grass by hand. They are some of the 2,000 people that BP still has working on the clean-up, down from a peak of 48,000 last year.
In another spot, two Volvo diggers are scraping off a top layer of oiled mud. A nearby stretch of marsh grass several miles long has no one working on it, but is arrayed with glittering silver paper and red-barrelled cannons that fire at regular intervals to scare off birds. When you step on the grass, a puddle of gleaming crude seeps up.
This, BP says, is the largest patch of oil remaining in the gulf: about 550 acres of delicate marshland that has to be cleaned with particular care.
On the little Grand Terre Island, once the base for the 19th-century pirate and local hero Jean Lafitte, there are stagnant pools where oil has seeped into the sand and mud. Some of the oil still looks quite fresh, while much of it has weathered to a reddish-brown colour and mixed with sand to form little tar balls, or a “tar mat”, sometimes several inches thick. In some spots, that tar mat appears to have killed off the marsh grass. But there are also plenty of places where BP’s clean-up crews have cut back the old grass and removed the oil, and new green growth is coming up.
The impact of the spill on the people of Louisiana has been similarly uneven. Captain Zach Mouton, who runs fishing charters out of Myrtle Grove, spent last summer taking out biologists to look for oiled birds. Working in the evenings while he kept his day job as an air-conditioning contractor, he made enough to buy a gleaming new $24,000 Yamaha engine for his boat. Jake Billiot, a successful shrimper from a Native American community further south, rented out his two largest boats to BP for laying booms, and has been able to buy three more.
Not everyone did so well. In Grand Bayou, Roland Phillips works on his boat’s ancient engine, which seems more rust than metal. He was hit hard by the closure of much of the region for fishing last year, and by the damage to oyster beds that are expected to take three years or more to recover. He worked for BP for a while last summer, but was laid off. He is now waiting for the start of the inshore shrimp season in early May.
“BP was good money, but it didn’t last,” he says. “I go to church and ask God; it’s in his hands now. Only he can determine if the situation will get back to normal.”
Kindra Arnesen, who lives at the very mouth of the Mississippi river, in Venice, has become a spokeswoman for the fishing communities affected by the spill, her impassioned speeches on YouTube receiving tens of thousands of hits. She plans to sue the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the fund backed by $20bn of BP’s money and administered by the lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, which rejected her claim for financial loss after she was forced to abandon plans to re-open her small barbecue restaurant.
“Feinberg denied my claim within three weeks. Never sent a request for more information; nothing,” she says. “And I’m sure it’s because my name’s Kindra Arnesen, but that’s fine. I don’t care. He can eat the other end of my attorney.”
Feinberg refused to comment on individual cases, but said: “The GCCF has paid or is in the process of paying every single legitimate individual and business claim where the claimant can document economic loss due to the oil spill. In just nine months, the GCCF has distributed almost $4bn to some 200,000 claimants in the gulf.”
Arnesen’s real concern, though, is the long-term health implications. Fishermen and others involved in the clean-up talk about the “BP flu”: persistent coughs and other symptoms that started when they worked in the oil, and have been impossible to shake off. Arnesen says she has seen children with blistered rashes after clouds of oily grey fog drifted across the village when the slick was at its largest.
“I wish a bunch of doctors would come down here and tell us what the hell is going on,” she says.
BP says exposure to oil and chemicals used in the clean-up was well below US government limits. It adds that illness and injuries among response workers “did not differ appreciably” from what would normally be expected for a workforce of that size, and has given $10m to support a study of health issues in the region since the spill.
The uncertainty over the health effects is one aspect of the bigger picture: it is still much too early to know what the long-term impact of the spill will be. Because it was an unprecedented event, scientists don’t have much history to guide them. About four years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, for example, the local population of Pacific herring collapsed, and has never recovered, but it is not known whether there was a connection.
Already something similar is starting to happen in the gulf. There has been a rise in the numbers of dead dolphins and turtles, but the causes are unclear. In part that is because some of the monitoring work is being done under the US government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment, compiling evidence to use against BP in its legal case. But even when that case is presented and the evidence is in the public domain, it will still leave many questions unanswered.
One of the most basic of those questions is where did all the oil go? US government scientists have calculated an “oil budget”, showing how much of the 4.9 million barrels that poured from the well was collected, evaporated and dispersed. Professor Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi, who was the first scientist to identify the “plumes” – huge clouds 3,000ft down, formed by small proportions of oil suspended in water – says those estimates remain highly uncertain.
“Some of the oil settled to the sea floor; some was digested by bacteria; some evaporated. It’s like the story of the blind men describing an elephant: depending on what you measure, you get a different view of it.”
At his office in the wetlands, with a spectacular view out over the marsh, Alex Kolker of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, says it will be many years before the impact of the spill is understood. “Science takes time,” he says. “It takes time to do the analysis, and time for the processes to work.”
BP plans to wind down its clean-up operation by the end of the year, but will have to monitor the condition of the gulf for the indefinite future. The company has moved on. Its shares have risen nearly 60 per cent from their low point at the height of the crisis, and the focus of its management’s attention has switched to Russia, where it is in dispute with its partners in its TNK-BP joint venture. Tony Hayward, the former chief executive most closely identified with the spill, is no longer directly employed by BP. But the US department of justice is working on both civil and criminal actions against BP, which are expected to result in penalties that could run into the tens of billions of dollars.
A more hopeful parallel than Alaska is the Ixtoc-1 spill of 1979-80, also in the Gulf of Mexico, also a huge volume. A US government study just two years afterwards found no impact on the deep-sea shrimp population, or on the small animals such as worms that live on the sea bed. Indeed, Professor Kolker argues that the spill is far from the greatest threat the marshes face. He calculates that about 700km of Louisiana marsh coastline was oiled, to a maximum depth of perhaps 20m, giving a maximum polluted area of 14 sq km. Even if all of that land was lost, it would still be dwarfed by the 62 sq km lost on average every year to erosion, caused by the controls on the Mississippi river and the effects of the oil and gas industry, which has cut canals that accelerate erosion and caused subsidence as a result of resource extraction.
That loss of land, at the rate of a football field slipping beneath the waves every 45 minutes, is threatening the homes and livelihoods of those who live along the coast, and hence the future of New Orleans as a viable city. Groups such as the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental campaign organisation, are arguing for the huge fines that BP will face as a result of the spill to be used for projects to save the marshes. If that were done, the spill could in the end have a positive outcome.
“The oil might not kill the marsh,” says Captain Mouton, showing on his navigation system the patches of land that have disappeared in the past few years. “But the money BP gives for the spill might help to save it.”
Ed Crooks is the FT’s US industry and energy editor. For expanded coverage on this story, including an audio slideshow by Ed Crooks, go to www.ft.com/bp
Read Ed Crooks’ original award-winning article on BP and the spill here