On August 26, 2010, I wrote a firsthand account of what life looked like on tiny Grand Isle, LA, after more than 100 days had passed since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 crewmen and released hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
[DISPATCHES FROM THE GULF – AUG. 26, 2010]
Now more than five years after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history fouled beaches, smothered seabirds and threatened delicate marshes, BP has settled with the Gulf states for a record setting $18.7 billion.
The Deepwater Horizon rig was being leased by BP on April 20, 2010, when it exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana, rupturing an underwater drilling well that spewed more than 220 million gallons of oil into the warm, sea-life infested waters that border Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Grand Isle, like many coastal communities dotting the Gulf region, is in existence for its commercial and recreational fishing industry. Typically around 1,500 people live year-around on Grand Isle, but that number escalates to 20,000 during the summer months. The problem is if the waters are contaminated, no one books vacation rentals.
Located 90 miles south of New Orleans, Grand Isle is the end of the road, where the land fades into the water. I came upon this place during a scouting assignment for Sirens Media. Having finished up my graduate studies in journalism at the University of Iowa the year before, I had relocated to New Orleans and was traveling through the Gulf Coast region to find odd characters for an upcoming reality television show when I crossed the bridge to this barrier island set at the mouth of Barataria Bay.
I lived in New Orleans once previously and witnessed tragedy up close in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina came calling, but was floored by the obvious mental, physical and financial suffering the inhabitants of Grand Isle were enduring as a result of BP’s carelessness.
The immediate impact for those north of Grand Isle was the price increase for fresh seafood. Locals and tourists alike love consuming Gulf oysters on the half-shell by the dozens, and scarfing down oyster po-boys. For months after the explosion the prices skyrocketed and availability on menus was erratic. This meant local fishermen who caught all that seafood were out-of-work.
This announced settlement with BP is vindication on some level. At least the company that perpetrated such a heinous accident is being held accountable – and will have to pay for its neglect and carelessness. Included in BP’s settlement is $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act penalties and $8.1 billion in Natural Resource Damages, to help states reverse damage from the spill. It also contains another $5.9 billion in economic claims by state and local governments.
BP said the settlement would bring its full obligations to an estimated $53.8 billion. At least that is BP’s new internal budget for its total liability related to the disaster. It’s unclear how much BP will end up paying under a 2012 settlement with individuals and businesses claiming spill-related losses.
According to the Justice Department, this agreement is the largest environmental settlement in U.S. history, as well as the largest-ever civil settlement with a single entity. BP did earn a valuable concession, as much of the payments over an 18-year span could be tax-deductible.
Some things will never be the same in these small fishing hamlets, but this settlement will help repair the damage done to the Gulf economy, fisheries, wetlands and wildlife. Big business has been put on notice that it can’t just purge the environment for its nefarious profit gains.
Still, Louisiana has plenty of other major issues staring it in its face, in particular the impact of global warming on climate change, and the result of rising sea levels combined with eroding wetlands. The water is coming.
In the last 80 years, Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of its coastal wetlands, a land mass roughly the size of Delaware. Land loss is continuing at a rate that would dissolve an area the size of Manhattan in 18 months; if nothing is done, in the next 15 years, another 300 to 500 square miles of Louisiana will disappear. This loss of will continue if unabated until New Orleans finds itself an island behind giant seawalls, surrounded by water waiting to reclaim its prey.
New Orleans will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina later this month. Some of the money from the BP settlement is earmarked to help pay for the ongoing levee and wetlands restoration projects to assist in keeping Louisiana’s coastal communities and largest city protected from potential storm surge. This ambitious master plan of protection comes with a hefty 50-year, $50 billion price tag.
Funding for this restoration effort and precautionary infrastructure will continue to be an ongoing fiscal fight, but for now this settlement is a momentary bright spot, a reason to celebrate, which is something New Orleans does well, and helps put a closing chapter on BP’s legacy of disaster.
If you break it, you will have to pay for it. That is the important message this settlement sends to big business trying to exploit the natural resources in America. Now Gulf Coast restoration can begin in earnest. It’s time to heal the wounds that BP tore in Gulf Coast ecosystems and communities.