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Report on the Gulf 1 year after the BP Oil Spill

Down in the Hole

Part I

Revisiting the Gulf One Year Later

In the beginning, they descended in droves. Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform ignited into a biblical inferno—taking the lives of 11 men and injecting what would become upwards of 200 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico—the media arrived to feast on stories of loss in an all-too-often-battered region. As the old saying goes “if it bleeds it leads,” and after the BP oil spill, there was blood enough to make nearly everyone’s hands unclean.

For months, stories about the explosion and its aftermath inundated the airwaves and newspapers, casting erstwhile BP CEO Tony Hayward as a callous villain of Shakespearean proportions and turning the term “junk shot” into a bitter punch line. It seemed like every publication worth its salt ran touching photos of oil-choked pelicans. And photographers captured masterpiece-quality shots of once-aquamarine waves turned to alien, amber-colored prisms—strangely captivating pictures that crystallized the paradox of life itself on the Gulf Coast—a life capable of both harrowing brutality and extraordinary beauty at once.

And then they were gone. As the flow of oil into the Gulf was stanched in late September, so too was the stream of stories about the spill’s blunt-force impact on the region—the national spotlight now turned to issues of putatively more pressing impact—though the images released and the words written about the spill remained seared in the minds of many. Of course, casting a light on the disaster was mostly a good thing, and it brought the full scope of the spill to the forefront of the national conversation, helping vast multitudes of people and animals in the process. But as the television lights and men-who-buy-ink-by-the-barrel disappeared, the denizens of the Gulf Coast were left to deal with the downside of intense but fleeting media attention—as iconic images of ecological disaster remained frozen in the public consciousness even as, bit by bit, the waters and coastlines of the Gulf clawed their way back to normalcy—a story reported upon with far less vigor even though it’s of no less importance. This two-part series aims to tell the untold side of the Gulf spill. It will explain how the Gulf itself is faring, how the charter captains and tourism professionals are dealing with the fallout from the disaster, and why it just might be time to go see for yourself how the region is fighting to bounce back.

In December, Dr. John Stein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who manages the overall seafood safety program in the area, told me that “there hasn’t been any visible oil in the Gulf for weeks” and that seafood testing there has yielded levels “well below toxicity.” Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, did Dr. Stein one better, saying that seafood from the Gulf “is probably the most tested seafood in the world, and therefore might possibly be the safest as well.” And no charter captain, government employee, or any other Gulf Coast resident that I spoke to said that oil—at least in its physical form—is a continuing problem. Although its psychological damage is still piling up. Gibbons calls this “the rhetorical impact” and says, “People are scared, or don’t know, or haven’t heard that the water is clean. But it is.”

To some, Gibbons’ words may sound like they’re predicated upon a miracle. Because where, exactly, did 200 million barrels of oil go? The answer, at least according to a NOAA report published in November that gave a best estimate—or “snapshot” as the agency calls it—of the fate of the oil as of July 14, is that it went to various places. One quarter was eliminated by burning, skimming, and direct recovery from the wellhead. Another 23 percent evaporated or dissolved, aided by oil-eating bacteria that were already common in the Gulf due to its warm temperature and naturally occurring seeps. The bacteria, which normally feed on oil that escapes from the Gulf’s reserves, went berserk after the spill, increasing tenfold in the immediate area within 24 hours. Almost 30 percent of the oil dispersed into microscopic droplets that biodegrade easily, either on their own or through the use of chemicals. Another subsection, referred to as “residual,” washed ashore and was collected by the massive cleanup effort. The rest is most likely far out in the Gulf, in very deep water, and in the process of biodegrading naturally. So while according to NOAA an exiguous percentage of the oil from the spill is still in the ocean, the amount is very small and getting smaller everyday. (It’s worthwhile to note that as of presstime, other studies from different researchers have called into contention NOAA’s claims.)

But no matter what the NOAA report can logically explain about the oil’s removal from the Gulf, it still does, in truth, almost seem like a miracle. And at this point, the people who depend on the Gulf for their livelihood will take any kind of intervention they can get—divine or otherwise. Because while the beaches lay clean and sugary white and the fisheries are open and bountiful with hungry fish, the tourists—a mainstay of the Gulf’s economy—have not returned. And so seaside restaurants have shuttered in droves, and deckhands on formerly prosperous fishing charters are chopping wood to make ends meet. Tough times have fallen like a moonless night on the tourism and boating communities of the Gulf. And though BP has set aside $20 billion in a fund called the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) to assuage the economic hardships of the region, many of those who have filed claims for lost earnings have found the process agonizingly slow and gnarled with bureaucratic hazards—in short, they’ve found just another hurdle on the long road back to life as it once was.

Part II of this series examines the human toll of the spill >>

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.