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Deepwater Horizon: This was no Armageddon

When BP's Deepwater Horizon exploded last April, the world feared the worst. But it has not come to pass, says David Usborne, and what's more, money is proving a more corrosive force than the oil

Tuesday 19 April 2011 00:00 BST

Do you remember when Barack Obama took his daughters to the Florida Panhandle for a dip last August to show would-be tourists that the water was just fine, notwithstanding the BP oil spill of a few months earlier? The three of them looked pretty splash-happy in the pictures. But guess what. They were nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico, but rather in a secret cove on the Atlantic side of the state. It was a set-up job.

This conspiracy nugget was rehearsed to me the other day by Karen Hopkins, a resident of Grand Isle, a barrier island in Louisiana that is lined by what is essentially the state's only public beach. She also manages a seafood processing plant there that was, without doubt, hurt by everything that followed the explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon oil rig a few miles offshore one year ago tomorrow.

But does she honestly think the White House capable of such blatant hoodwinkery? And is she on the level when, with great emotion, she tells this reporter that, 12 months on, life on Grand Isle is more ruined than ever?

Though vivid enough, Hopkins has only a bit-part in the tragedy that consumed the United States through a large portion of last summer and which is still playing out, though to a much smaller audience. Her place was with the chorus of innocent – and often very angry – victims in the story.

She recently told Kevin Feingold, the man in charge of distributing BP cheques to local Louisianans most affected by the disaster, that he can "rot in hell" before she takes the paltry $5,000 on offer. She intends to sue.

But this tragedy is more complicated than at first presented and it's possible that Hopkins is playing two roles at once, the second in a subplot not much noticed before. Its storyline is about politics and money and greed, and is much less about the actual science of last year's spill. In fact, at times it has followed a script that has been in direct conflict with the available scientific evidence.

At issue here is the second and barely discussed scandal of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, the one about the loose talk we were all exposed to about an environmental catastrophe of a magnitude that was impressive and frightening but was also to an extent fraudulent.

Implicated in this scam to different degrees are politicians – President Obama among them, by the way, but more directly a handful of elected officials in Louisiana – and some academics with an appetite for media attention and, of course, the media itself. Here are some other things you surely recall. Crude oil from the crippled well was going to travel south to the tip of Florida and smother the reefs around the Keys.

Thereafter, it would curl around to the east coast of the state and catch the Gulf Stream into the Atlantic Ocean. If enough of it spewed from those broken pipes under the sea, who was to say it wouldn't reach Cornwall and become Britain's new Torrey Canyon?

Here was something else: the wetlands that fan out from the mouth of the Mississippi and which are one of the most valuable natural wonders of the United States would be wiped out by what BP had perpetrated. At the very least, they would take 20 years to come back. It was a mortifying prospect. Those myriad islands of grass and cane that protect the bayous of Louisiana from coastal erosion, and provide nesting grounds for teeming birdlife, are the foundation of an entire culture.

As it shifted east, the oil would foul not just wetlands, but also beaches. Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were all in the target zone.

One year later something surprising and shocking – and ultimately reassuring – emerges. Little of what they said was going to happen actually did. The wetlands, in all their beauty, remain. The beaches in all four impacted states are all open to the public again. The fisheries that were closed at the peak of the crisis are all reopened for this spring's harvests and, according to the US government at least, is entirely safe to eat. Indeed, because of the closure of the fisheries last year, fish stocks this year appear to be at record levels.

Before going any further, let's be clear. The oil, all 4.9 million barrels of it, clearly did damage. As Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental advocacy group that has been at the forefront of the effort to get BP to spend as much as possible in the clean-up, pointed out, "you can't put 14 Exxon Valdezes into an ecosystem like this without some impact".

Moreover, some of the long-lasting effects of oil that may still be lurking beneath the surface – the last of the surface oil was gone months ago – as well of the thousands of gallons of chemical dispersant BP used to break down the oil on the surface, and as it came out of the pipes on the seabed, are still not fully understood.

It is also possible that so-called "mats" of oil may be lurking barely beneath the surf, close to those beaches that BP has just finished cleaning up. A hurricane, for example, could stir them up and darken the sand once again. On an escorted visit last week to Karen Hopkins's beach at Grand Isle, I am at first struck by its pristine whiteness. But close to where the water laps the beach a few little marbles of sand are visible that are mixed through with oil.

They are not tar balls that stick to your soles but crumble when picked up. They call them Surface Residue Balls and it would surely be better if they weren't there at all.

But the pollution Armageddon we heard so much about did not materialise either. Consider these contradicting facts. As the crisis escalated last year, we were told repeatedly that 30,000 acres of Louisiana wetland would suffer heavy oiling.

Ed Owens, a native of Wales, who, with his company Polaris Applied Science, has been contracted by the federal government and BP to conduct an assessment of the damage to the wetlands and Louisiana beaches, and recommend actions to return them to perfect health, now has a different story. "What we can say now with legitimacy is exactly how much heavily oiled shoreline there is and it won't be a BP number and it's a number that can't be debated," he said. And that number is 300 acres.

Owens, who has blazing white hair and a black eye-patch, invited me last week to spend a day with one of his SCAT teams. (It stands for Shoreline Clean-Up Assessment Technique, an approach to gathering data on the effects of spills that he invented.) Our group, led by another oil-spill veteran Karen Ramsey, heads out from the fishing port of Cocodrie to a small promontory of marsh where earlier inspections had revealed a layer of oil on top of a small mound of oyster shells, no bigger than a picnic table, that had hardened into a kind of asphalt.

Our job was to ensure that since the discovery of the patch on 13 March, a clean-up crew had been by and removed it. After we poke among the shells a little, Ramsey declares herself satisfied and we putter back to port on "bathtub-smooth" waters, as our boat captain, Jerry, puts it.

At lunch some hours later on Grand Isle, I meet Ivor Van Heerden, another Polaris employee, and he offers another set of statistics. Mismanagement of the Mississippi, he contends, as well as the endless digging of navigation canals by the energy companies, means that Louisiana loses 500 acres of wetland on an average week. So is this the environmental calamity of the BP spill? (We are not talking of the real human toll here, not least of the 11 who died on the rig.) Three hundred acres of Louisiana wetlands oiled (and likely to recover fully), against the 500 acres that are disappearing in the murky delta waters every week? What happened here? Whence the gap between what we were told was happening and what did happen? Mike Utsler, another veteran of oil industry accidents, who today is heading BPs clean-up effort, said in an interview last week that things turned out better than feared partly because of the extraordinary efforts that were undertaken to keep the oil away from the coastline.

With an army of 48,000 people at its peak with 120 planes and 2,000 boats, they skimmed and sprayed and burned as much of the oil as possible. And they laid all those thousands of miles of floating boom. Which, by the way, has all gone now.

But, he admits, they got lucky, too. Far more oil was spilled in this accident than at the Exxon Valdez, but it was of a far different kind. It was much, much lighter and less viscous. So it evaporated more quickly and was broken down more easily by natural organisms in the area of the spill, many washed into the ocean by the Mississippi.

The freshwater outflow from the river itself helped to push the oil away. And the sea and water temperatures, helpfully, were much higher than in Alaska. "There is no question that the Gulf of Mexico as an ecosystem in warm waters rich with bacterial micro-organisms and sea life has been a benefit to the response," Utsler conceded.

Much of this, according to Van Heerden, who used to teach geology and oil industry science at Louisiana State University, was predictable. He and Owens knew fairly much from the start – even as the well was still leaking – that much of what the politicians were saying about the pollution risks were exaggerations and untruths. Yet 11 months or so ago, no one in the state was bothering to listen.

"We knew that this was all going to happen from the get-go," Owens told me. "There have been oil spills before in Louisiana and they have been studied before. So it is not a great surprise to us that the recovery has reached the stage that it has. But it's hard to tell people to calm down when they're panicking. They're not listening to you but you do try to present reasonable expectations to them." Van Heerden is a bit more harsh. "The political hysteria was never fact-checked against the science," he explained, standing on the deck of a grocery and bait shop by the bridge across to Grand Isle after completing his own SCAT inspection of a nearby area of marsh. "Our data was freely available on the web, but no one was looking".

Perhaps one of the most curious, not to say shocking, episodes of the spill was the push made by the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, in partnership with Bill Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, which at the time seemed at risk of the most peril from any oil reaching shore, for the construction of a line of sand barriers – or berms – at sea that they envisaged more or less encircling the entire Mississippi mouth area and keeping the oil out.

It seemed mad to BP and mad to many scientists, because to complete them would have taken years at a cost of at least a billion dollars. But at a meeting on Grand Isle last May, Jindal and Nungesser managed to persuade President Obama that the berm construction was vital to the survival of the state.

Approval for 40 miles of the sand barriers was given and a small portion of that was eventually built. According to Owens, it is already sinking back into the sea.

Even Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network concurs that the berm-building was a wild waste of money, born of hysteria. "That was money that was wasted. When you think that was money that did not go towards legitimate efforts to contain and stop the oil, then you have to say that it was outrageous."

What if some folk in Louisiana overstated the dangers they faced last year? Can you blame them really, not least because that oil well was untamed for so long, spewing oil into the water almost unchecked from 20 April until early July, when BP engineers finally got it under control? What motive could they have had for going overboard in their depictions of the unfolding calamity?

You can blame them because it scared tourists away and knocked the bottom out of the state's fisheries industry. Owens and Van Heerden contend that if everyone had paid more heed to the scientists that "political hysteria" – displayed even by Obama as his administration famously "kept the boot on the neck" of BP – would never have taken hold and nor would have the perception across America that Louisiana was itself about to slip down some oil-coated chasm to oblivion.

"We knew from day one that this wasn't going to be another Exxon Valdez but the scientists were completely ignored," Van Heerden said.

And the reason for it all? For the media, the motivation was dramatic headlines. Louisiana, we decreed in the first days of the spill had been touched by a "Black Tide", when no such thing had yet occurred.

It was weeks before this correspondent saw oil and then from a helicopter. CNN showed images of a single oiled pelican and it didn't matter if it was one of ten oiled birds or one of a thousand. We all had the image we needed.

For Louisiana and the politicians it was – of course – money. "Louisiana has become a beggar state," Van Heerden suggested. "We survive on handouts that come to us in the wake of natural catastrophes."

It was the hue and cry that the politicians created that led BP to agree to set up $20 billion compensation fund. Those dollars are now flowing into Louisiana and its Gulf Coast neighbours. And perhaps for Karen Hopkins, who has refused the one-off cheque for $5,000 and means to sue, it is about money, too.

These are the other layers to this tale. We still don't know many things, including the invisible and long-term damage that the oil and dispersants might cause.

No one has calculated if the economic losses suffered by Louisiana have been offset already by the billions being poured in by BP. And then there is this: did the exaggerations and hyperbole – and, dare we say it, the fantasies – about a global environmental cataclysm that was meant to come about but for the most part has not do more damage than the oil itself?

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