On April 20, 2010, the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in a fireball 50 miles southeast of Plaquemines Parish, killing 11 men, injuring 17 more and sending a black geyser of smoke into the sky above the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, BP — which was leasing and operating the rig — told the press two things: the rig was not expected to collapse, and any pollution was likely to be minimal. That was the first time BP was either optimistic, disingenuous or dissembling about the disaster. It certainly wouldn't be the last.
As for BP's first claim, the Deepwater Horizon sank within 36 hours. And as the world well knows, crude gushed from a gash in the sea floor like an erupting underwater oil volcano for nearly five months afterward. The amount of crude that fouled the Gulf, the beaches, the marshes and the wildlife sanctuaries is officially estimated at seven times greater than that from the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Where are we today, a year later?
Two weeks ago, BP announced it was done deep-cleaning the Alabama shoreline. Days later, Gulf Shores, Ala., Mayor Robert Craft said workers had collected 9,600 pounds of tar balls along local beaches in the previous two weeks alone. Last week, Kenneth Feinberg, the man hired by BP to oversee the claims process, filed papers in federal court opposing Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's request for more transparency in that process. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast residents, who have been exposed to raw crude and chemical dispersants in the wake of the explosion, are coming forward with remarkably similar tales of health problems. (See Alex Woodward's cover story, "Sick," page 19).
In sum, the situation one year later is much like the marshlands: still all fouled up.
Every disaster is unique, but the official response to the BP catastrophe during the past year eerily reminds us of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures. BP vowed to "make it right" with compensation for those whose lives and livelihoods were up-ended, but respondents who filed claims found themselves tangled in the same bureaucratic kudzu that sprang up with the post-Katrina The Road Home program. Like his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama was slow to react to the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history — and his administration often seemed staggeringly out of touch, as when White House energy czar Carol Browner asserted in August 2010, "The vast majority of the oil is gone." ProPublica last week outlined the ways in which claims money turned into a gold rush for politically connected contractors, while all too often the little guys got crumbs.
Then there was BP's feckless leader, Tony Hayward, a human PR wrecking ball whose pronouncements in the months after the disaster invited comparisons to former FEMA head Michael Brown. (Brown: "Can I quit now? Can I come home?" Hayward: "I want my life back.") Hayward, who stepped down as BP's CEO last fall, was scheduled to take home millions in BP stock options at the company's annual shareholders' meeting in London on April 14. The company itself posted $4.4 billion in profits during the fourth quarter of 2010.
Meanwhile, the well has been capped. The oil has stopped gushing. The world's attention has shifted to Japan, Libya and elsewhere. But the people of the Gulf Coast are still waiting.
Waiting to be made whole by the corporation that ruined their livelihoods.
Waiting for their claims to wend their way through miles of red tape.
Waiting for medical attention after their exposure to crude oil and dispersants that have been banned in other countries.
Waiting to see why dead dolphins and sea turtles are suddenly washing up on their beaches in unusual numbers.
Waiting to see what the shrimp and oyster harvests will be this year.
Waiting to see what this year's high temperatures and hurricane season will bring, and what the storms will push ashore.
Waiting to see if their children will have a future on the Gulf.
Waiting to see if they, like Tony Hayward, will get their lives back.