Five years after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, the Chandeleur Islands look alive off the coast of Louisiana.
The beaches are sugary white and unstained by oil. The water is green and full of fish. Birds are everywhere — laughing gulls, willets, terns, skimmers, egrets, oyster catchers and herons.
A rookery that some feared would be annihilated by the spill is thriving, the mangroves bobbing with hundreds of pelicans, old and young.
It’s glorious to see, yet also deceiving. For 87 straight days in 2010, crude oil gushed nearby from a broken well in the Gulf of Mexico — 172 million gallons, according to the U.S. government, though nobody really knows how much.
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And nobody can say how much of it remains in the water. Most of the oil has likely dissolved or evaporated, but panels of scientists assert that millions of gloppy gallons still spatter the sea floor.
The Chandeleurs, a crescent barrier chain that’s part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, were among the first to get oiled after the BP blowout. It was also the first place where dying sea birds were found.
A six-foot sand berm was hastily constructed to contain the oil at the northernmost Chandeleurs. Whether it was because of that, the tides or favorable winds, the islands were not hit as brutally as some coastal areas.
Seeing all this life on the water at sunrise, one can’t be blamed for thinking everything’s fine, pretty much back to normal. That’s what you hear from BP, too, but it’s not entirely true.
Since the spill, bottle-nosed dolphins have been dying at about three times the normal rate in the northern Gulf. Deep-water corals have shown lasting damage. Oil traced to the BP blowout has been found in the livers of red snapper and tilefish. Unexplained lesions and tumors have been observed in bottom-dwelling fish.
BP says the seafood taken from the Gulf is safe to eat, and tests much lower for oil residues than is required by the Food and Drug Administration.
The oil giant has spent a fortune cleaning up its image and the mess in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, including $13.7 billion in claims and settlements. The company says its drilling operations are much safer now.
Because the whole world got to watch the Deepwater Horizon disaster live — literally streaming — politicians who favored more offshore exploration retreated temporarily. They were counting on Americans to have a short memory.
Then, in January, the Obama administration proposed a plan that would open offshore oil leases in the Atlantic Ocean, from Virginia to Georgia. Ten new leases would also be granted in the Gulf of Mexico; one is in the eastern zone near Florida, where opposition to coastal drilling traditionally has been fierce.
Yet, except for criticism from environmental groups, there hasn’t been a loud public outcry over Obama’s plan in Florida, or in any of the states with tourist economies that depend on clean, untarred beaches.
Virginia’s two U.S. senators, both Democrats, praised the president’s drilling program, saying it “should result in the safe, responsible development of energy resources.”
Because big oil companies never screw up, right?
Apparently, five years is the political probation period after a man-made catastrophe. Obama has moved to allow seismic testing for possible offshore oil and gas reserves all the way from Delaware to Cape Canaveral.
The process involves the staccato firing of big compressed air guns deep in the ocean over periods of weeks. Prominent scientists from Duke, Cornell and other institutions say the method poses a “significant threat to marine life.”
In a rare display of attentiveness, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection last month wrote to the feds, seeking postponement of seismic permits until more is known about how the blasting air guns affect whales, fish and sea turtles. (Negatively would be a good guess).
On a boat in the Chandeleurs, under a sky filled with birds, it’s tempting to marvel at nature’s rebound and push aside the dreadful images from the spring of five years ago.
There are no obvious signs of the BP spill here. Even the protective berm is gone, obliterated by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
Yet the truth is that terrible damage was done by that 87-day flood of oil into the Gulf, and many communities suffered immensely. Since then, numerous spills have occurred both on land and in water in this country, none of them on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon but still a signal for extreme caution.
Nobody knows when the next big ocean blowout will happen.
Everything out there looks just fine.
Until one day it isn’t.