Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Five years later, something wicked (and oily) this way comes

Remember those arresting images, as the Gulf states rallied in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster? Great TV footage. Great YouTube videos. Great news photos.

And wasn’t it reassuring to see those shots of that mighty armada, 3,500 fishing vessels, pressed into emergency service with special outriggers designed to sop up rust-red tendrils of oil before they reached the Gulf coast marshes and beaches?

Politicians, doing their best impersonation of Winston Churchill, grim-faced but determined, turned the disaster response into a series of photo-ops. There was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist ordering a flotilla of plastic booms to protect the Panhandle and keep globs of oil from contaminating our beaches. There was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ordering the construction of a $360 million chain of earthen berms 40 miles offshore, despite the misgivings of marine scientists (who turned out to be right about their ineffectiveness).

Along the coast, we spent the spring and summer of 2010 like sentinels of doom, watching and waiting for that nasty plume, 4.2 million barrels of red gooey crude, to wash ashore and litter the beaches with oil-coated carcasses of fowl and fish. We anticipated, cameras at the ready, what we were told would be the greatest natural disaster in American history. We waited for a few months anyway, until scientists decided that most of the oil seemed to have settled, instead, on the sea bed.

Out of sight, out of the public mind. By that fall, the Deepwater Horizon spill no longer seemed worthy of the kind of hyperbole we assign to biggie disasters.

But lately, as we approach the fifth anniversary on April 20 of the fiery offshore oil well calamity that killed 11 workers and sent oil gushing from a breached undersea pipe for 87 days, it has become apparent that it was indeed a considerable environmental calamity. Except in this slow-motion calamity, much of the damage occurred underneath the surface.

Five years later, we now know that only about 5 percent of the spilled oil was removed from the water. That the spill cost Gulf Coast states, including Florida, $100 billion in lost economic activity and clean-up. Thousands of jobs disappeared. Three thousand miles of coastal marshland and beaches were affected.

And five years later the damage is still accruing. A report released Monday by the National Wildlife Federation on the consequences of the spill suggests that an ever-growing area around BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead — now encompassing 1,235 square miles — has suffered significant environmental damage, particularly for wildlife.

The NWF study found that bottlenose dolphins along the Louisiana coastline died last year at four times what scientists consider a natural death rate, “and there is increasing evidence that these ongoing dolphin deaths are connected to the 2010 oil disaster.” The report similarly blamed the deaths of 32 percent of sea gulls and 12 percent of brown pelicans in the area on the lingering effects of the spill. Nests of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle have markedly declined along the coast since the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Fish populations are struggling to recover, including valuable commercial fish like red snapper, bluefin and yellowfin tuna and mahi mahi. Sperm whales living in the Gulf have been afflicted with unusually high levels of chromium and nickel, metals that scientists believe can cause genetic damage to their progeny. “These metals are present in oil from the spill and the results suggest exposure, particularly since whales closest to the wellhead showed the highest levels,” the report said.

The NWF assessment was considerably less optimistic than a report BP posted on its website last month. BP’s sunny assessment claimed that “most of the environmental impact occurred immediately after the accident — during spring and summer 2010 — in areas near the wellhead and along oiled beaches and marshes. Areas that were affected are recovering and data that BP has collected and analyzed to date do not indicate a significant long-term impact to the population of any Gulf species.”

Of course, BP, anticipating a giant bill from the federal courts, would like to tamp down the damage assessment.

The company’s report brought a quick rebuke from the trustees council — a collection of scientists from state and federal agencies led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that has been tasked by the U.S. District Court to put together a “natural resource damage assessment” to calculate those costs. It may be another three years before the trustees council comes up with a final dollar figure.

“It is inappropriate as well as premature for BP to reach conclusions about impacts from the spill before the completion of [our] assessment,”’ the council said in a March 18 statement issued after BP’s declaration downplaying any long-term impacts. “Citing scientific studies conducted by experts from around the Gulf, as well as this council, BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn't support its claims and attempts to obscure our role as caretakers of the critical resources damaged by the spill.”

The council slap-down seemed to portend that long-term problems suffered by both wildlife and economic interests will be daunting. As it turns out, what we shrugged off as a dud of an environmental catastrophe five years ago was anything but. We’re in the middle of a slow-motion disaster, and it’s creeping ever steadily our way.