Seven years later: What's ahead for the Gulf?

BP's $20 billion settlement funds largest environmental restoration in U.S. history

Starkly different scenes from Cat Island off Louisiana reveal both healthy habitat and dying mangroves that's linked to oil pollution.

Sean Saville/Audubon

Q. April 2017 marks seven years since the BP oil spill. Where are we now?

A: In 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and created the largest offshore oil disaster in history. Millions of barrels leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. While the harrowing images of oil-soaked wildlife and beaches have subsided, science reveals that impacts of the spill are ongoing and significant.

BP agreed to settle out of court and pay more than $20 billion. A judge approved the settlement on April 4, 2016.

Q. What kind of impacts are we still seeing?

A: Since 2010, more than 1,400 dolphins have been found dead on the Northern Gulf of Mexico, marking the longest “unusual mortality event” recorded in the area, according to NOAA. Credible estimates of the loss of up to 1 million birds also tell the story. 

But more mysterious and just as worrying is what scientists have a much harder time measuring, like the impacts on deepwater corals, zooplankton and many types of marine life that live in the middle depths of the sea, explains EDF Chief Oceans Scientist Douglas N. Rader.

“To top it off, all of this occurred near the Mississippi River Delta, an ecosystem already under enormous pressure,” Rader says. This pressure is driven by century-old development choices that favored commerce and development over sustainability of the Delta. And now research has shown that the rate of marsh shoreline erosion increased with oiling.

Before and after Barataria Bay island

Satellite imagery reveals how this island in Barataria Bay, off Louisiana’s coast, is quickly eroding. More: Last chance for Cat Island?

Q. Isn’t BP supposed to pay for spilling oil into the Gulf?

A: Yes. The Clean Water Act sets the rule for such penalties, and in 2012, Congress passed the RESTORE Act, which ordered that the majority of civil fines stemming from the oil spill be spent on Gulf Coast restoration. Those funds will go a long way toward healing the delta and restoring the Gulf.

“It represents a significant step toward justice for the Gulf Coast ecosystems, economies and communities that were damaged by the disaster,” said EDF president Fred Krupp.

Beyond that, BP is also liable for Natural Resources Damages Assessment fines and economic losses.  

Q. How will the money be used?

A: In Louisiana, it will help fund the projects in the Coastal Master Plan, which serves as the state’s guiding document for restoration, as well as other projects around the Gulf.

EDF helped shape the Louisiana plan, providing guidance on over 100 projects that will help the state recover its coastal land areas and protect its communities. Key to this is making sure “natural infrastructure” projects—wetlands, barrier islands and oyster reefs—all play their part, both by fortifying the coast and rebuilding habitat.

Already, restoration money is being used to help rebuild four Louisiana barrier islands that will buffer storm surge and provide vital habitat for birds, and to design two large-scale sediment diversions that will use the natural land-building power of the Mississippi River to rebuild tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and ecosystems that have been lost. 

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