When the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) invited me down to the Gulf last June to witness the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I didn't know what to expect. Would I see oiled wildlife, oil on the beaches, oil in the wetlands—would the deadly effects be readily visible? The answer is yes to all of the above, and more: Even the air along the Gulf Coast was saturated with oil, so much so that we brought respirators. At the marina in Grand Isle, Louisiana, I wondered aloud why the cleanup workers weren't wearing them, and some local fishermen voiced their opinion: It looks bad in pictures, so the masks weren't provided.
It looks bad in pictures. While it was hard to see a pelican struggling to lift off on oil-covered wings, or a bottlenose dolphin arcing through the murky water with its crude-soaked baby beside it, I found it even harder to stomach BP's heavy-handed attempts to control media access. And they've gotten a big assist from the U.S. government: Three weeks after my visit it became illegal for journalists to come within 65 feet of any cleanup operations. Anyone violating this new regulation can be slapped with a $40,000 fine, a felony charge, and prison time.
On my second day in the Gulf, I flew out to the rig itself. The pilot, whom I don't name because he was risking his livelihood by ferrying a journalist, had to clear his flight plan with the Coast Guard, the FAA—and a BP representative. Requests to enter that airspace are routinely denied for "safety reasons." I guess you could say I was lucky to be able to see our nation's worst environmental disaster with my own burning eyes.
"They," of course, is BP, the oil company that caused the worst environmental disaster in American history when its drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon exploded last April, killing 11 workers and unleashing an out-of-control gusher of heavy crude. After its initial estimate of 1,000 barrels flowing daily into the Gulf of Mexico, BP was forced by scientists to admit the truth: The number was closer to 60,000 barrels. The result: a cloak of oil and toxic chemicals coating one of the world's richest ecosystems, about the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every four days. "You will see black oil, you will see brown oil, you will see red oil, you will see sheets of it," the pilot added. He was from Alabama and plainspoken, with an accent that stretched his vowels out like warm taffy. His eyes were pale blue and deeply sad.
Our flight path would take us out to the rig itself, roughly 50 miles offshore. But first we crossed the coastal lowlands, a region that teems with life. Usually in summer the shorelines are filled with fishermen, shrimpers, and oyster harvesters, families picnicking on the beach. Now the only people near the water are workers in heavy boots and hazmat gear. It is also the season for migrating birds, and millions would soon show up: geese, ducks, shorebirds, waterbirds, songbirds. But the baitfish they are coming to feed on are dead or contaminated, and the birds' resting grounds are fouled with sticky crude. Thousands will undoubtedly perish. The brown pelican, Louisiana's state emblem, was only recently removed from the endangered species list. Its numbers could take a significant hit; other bird species may fare even worse.
As we set out over the Gulf, the smell of oil became overwhelming. It was a heavy, noxious backdrop, like burying your head in a crankcase; it sears your eyes and constricts your chest. The sky was a haze of cloud and smoke, and the Gulf's surface shimmered with sickening rainbows and strange metallics, like a dirty puddle at a gas station. "All that's oil, just different intensities," the pilot said, pointing out the window. "Black is the thickest. And there's even more underwater."
Next:"What will it mean for the 150,000 dolphins in these waters, creatures with skin so sensitive that oil burns and blinds them?"
He was right. Scientists have discovered massive plumes sweeping along 1,000 meters down, enveloping all sea life around them in a cloud of gas, oil, and a dispersant called Corexit. This chemical—manufactured by a company with corporate ties to BP—breaks the oil into smaller droplets, so fewer alarming globs show up on the beach. There are two forms of Corexit, one, 9527, slightly worse than the other, 9500. Both contain toxic petroleum solvents, but 9527 contains 2-butoxyethanol, which ruptures red blood cells. During the Valdez spill, cleanup workers who had been exposed to it and other chemicals reportedly suffered liver and kidney damage. In the current spill, it has been sprayed with abandon, dumped from planes and piped out a mile below the surface, near the sheared pipeline. BP started off with 9527, coating the sea surface and sending it sluicing across deepwater coral reefs, then deployed 9500 until the EPA demanded that the company search for a less toxic alternative. Whereupon BP produced a report saying that no safer dispersant existed. To date, more than two million gallons of Corexit have entered the food chain.
What will all of this do to the Gulf's rich marine life—its sperm whales and bluefin tuna, rare creatures that were once otherwise; or its lordly whale sharks (the planet's biggest fish) and billfish? What will it mean for the 150,000 dolphins in these waters, creatures with skin so sensitive that oil burns and blinds them? Or the large fish that keep the system in balance, the snappers, amberjack, and groupers? As the crude and dispersants flow during spawning season—how will the fragile larvae and eggs fare? And let's not even talk about sea turtles. (Hundreds of the Gulf's five resident species—all threatened or endangered before this—have already died.) No one knows what effects this unprecedented chemistry experiment might have on the region's living things, but many scientists fear the worst. The ocean's senior denizens, its magnificent predators, the toothed and the finned, the small and the humble, the ancient corals, the exquisitely adapted: At best they will suffer. At worst, they'll be gone.
During a visit to the region, President Obama told residents that "things are going to return to normal." It's hard to imagine how. After a tragedy like this one, none of us can ever be the same. But that doesn't have to be the end of this story. Human spirit is a transcendent thing, and it shines even under a blanket of heavy crude. We see it in the volunteers who have flocked to the Gulf to rescue animals and clean up beaches; the countless people who have donated money and time; the community leaders; the environmental groups; the scientists who are risking their own health to dive into the oil for answers; the collective effort to help in any way possible. For all that we've lost here, there is something we can find: the strength to get past this, the humility to fix our mistakes, and the determination to do whatever it takes to never let it happen again.