On 15 July 2010, the beleaguered responders closed the final valve in a long-sought technical solution to what had seemed like an endless emergency. Literally overnight, the gigantic layer of BP oil floating on the Gulf of Mexico began to dissipate. Within about ten days, we could no longer see any surface oil in the satellite images we had been scanning all through that long summer.
Although floating oil could no longer be seen from space, it festered in marsh soils and offshore sands. It had killed and would keep on killing myriads of marine creatures. Some of their carcasses washed ashore and broke our hearts, but the vast majority sank uncounted and unmourned. The oil had devastated the livelihoods of many Gulf residents in a way that no BP lucre could repay. But something else had been dealt a deadly blow, something just as difficult to restore as damaged ecology and economic well-being: trust.
With the dissipation of the surface oil due to sun and wave action, a strange denial began to set in. BP has aggressively aired television spots proclaiming that the coast was clear, even though there is still plenty of oil to be found in Louisiana marshes. Fishing and tourism promoters were anxious to agree, even though fishermen and residents retain deep concerns. Did the oil spill really happen?
The Gulf is a maritime treasure of the United States, productive of every kind of wealth — ecological, recreational, nutritional, and spiritual. This entire system had been shut down in every way for over four months of its peak season. What other system could suffer such a shock and then carry on as if nothing had happened? Yet we are asked to believe,a year later, that it is all practically back to normal. If one points to a dead porpoise or a diseased fish to ask, “Did the oil do this?” The response from legal authority seems to be, “You can’t prove it!”
Pardon our skepticism. We understand that the legal process of assessing damages requires that evidence is sequestered from public scrutiny until the case against BP is settled. But an essential component of restoration has to make people feel safe and secure in this environment. Denial does not accomplish this and neither does secrecy.
There are many facets to the dilemma. One aspect that would restore trust would be to reform the procedures of monitoring, reporting, and, if necessary, prosecuting operators who spill oil in the Gulf.
Since July 2010, there have been over 5,000 reports to the National Response Center of oil and hazardous material spills in the Gulf. Nearly half of those are characterized only as “unknown spill from unknown source.” Only 1/4 of the reports include an estimate of the volume of material spilled, yet the total from that small fraction is 2 million gallons. There is ample reason to suspect chronic under-reporting. Oil washing onto the beaches of Grand Isle in late March caused near-panic, spurring rumors that BP’s infamous Macondo well had somehow risen from the dead, or that a major new offshore leak had begun; analysis of the oil fingered a company that had reported spilling less than 4 gallons. Mystery slicks were sighted off Venice, Louisiana and south of Grand Isle, but never attributed to any definite source. Oil slicks more than 10 miles long are routinely observed at the site of a platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, yet the rig that had been working to plug those wells is no longer on the scene. It does not instill confidence to note the repeated under-reporting of oil discharges and the fact that fewer than one percent of offenders are fined under the Clean Water Act.
By failing to notice pollution events and allowing blatant under-reporting to continue, and by turning a blind eye to repeat or chronic offenders we create a condition of moral hazard with respect to care of the Gulf environment. If unchecked, this will lead us to the next oil disaster.