Today marks the four-year anniversary of the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Eleven lives were lost on that day in 2010, and more than 200 million gallons of crude oil released into the Gulf of Mexico over the following months. To put that into perspective, the same volume of oil poured into the Empire State Building would reach the 77th floor — nearly three-quarters of the way to the top.
To many, things have returned to normal. Vacationers no longer see oil slicks sullying the beaches or filth-covered shore birds and poisoned fish.
According to reports by Florida research group Evans-Klages, provided by the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, the region saw 346,900 visitors in the summer of 2010, a drop of more than 200,000 from the previous year. But since that initial dip, lodging rentals and retail sales have been steadily increasing and in summer 2013, the number of visitors topped 655,000.
The increased tourism has been good business for Captain Ben Fairey, operator of Necessity Charters and a 40-year veteran of the industry.
“Everything is good,” said Fairey. “Our business is directly linked to tourism, so if tourism is up, we’re up … You can’t even tell there was an oil spill. Our fishing is as good as it gets.”
Others are not as optimistic.
Tom Steber, general manager of Zeke’s Marina, is also president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association.
“There are a lot of areas in the Gulf where the fishing is not that good but most of it’s further offshore, closer to the well site,” said Steber. “That whole area out there is kind of a dead zone, for lack of a better word.”
These areas are not closed to fishing, per se, according to Steber. The problem is that there are just no fish in areas where they used to be plentiful, an issue that is exacerbated by the shortened season on red snapper — the dominant reef fish in the area.
“It’s devastated the charter industry,” he said. “Charter boats used to fish out 200 trips a year, now they’re doing good to do 60. It’s hard to make a living when you’ve got 28 days, 40 days to fish.”
According to Kevin Anson, chief marine biologist for the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the truncated snapper seasons over the last several years — just 11 days in 2014 — were “not in relation to the oil spill,” he said. “That is a consequence of the recent ruling in a U.S. federal court that basically said the National Marine Fisheries Service was not doing its job relative to managing the red snapper quota in a fair and equitable manner.”
How the oil spill did affect fish species in the Gulf is still unclear, according to Anson. While fisheries managers perform annual stock assessments, there is some lag time before the effects can be seen.
“Most of our fish we are starting to recruit in the fishery are starting to get to the age where they would have been born in that year (during the oil spill), so we’re just now starting to get into that data,” said Anson. “I don’t think it’s a one year type thing. It’s multiple years, particularly for older fish to see how that age class moves through. We’re just now ... starting this year to have a couple years’ worth of data to try and identify those things.”
And, he pointed out, ongoing efforts to monitor Gulf seafood for oil-related compounds have shown it to be safe.
“All the tests have shown that none of the samples are above the minimum threshold that warrants concern,” said Anson.
CLEAN BILL OF HEALTH
The state of marine life was not the only health concern in the spill’s aftermath, according to Paige Rucker, director of nonprofit organization Project Rebound that serves disaster affected communities by providing individual counseling, community support and education in the classroom and to the public. From August 2010 to the present, Project Rebound has served more than 112,000 Gulf Coast residents with oil spill crisis counseling and related issues.
“In the first two years it was basically triage,” said Rucker. “We had so many people in need of mental health services, we almost couldn’t handle it.”
Project Rebound’s spill-related services were funded by a $12 million grant from BP to the Alabama Department of Mental Health. Most of those funds have been spent, so Rucker and her staff were forced to reduce those services at the end of last year.
The Rollercoasters Program, which helps children in first through eighth grades deal with problems at home, was established in response to the spill and the potential increase in divorce rates due to stress and financial uncertainty. Although the program is now open to all children of divorce, it is the only spill-related service still offered by Project Rebound, and is available only in Baldwin County.
Due to its cooperation with projects like the GuLF Study, Rucker is hopeful Project Rebound may benefit from the BP Medical Benefits Settlement, which provides payment and treatment for an estimated 200,000 Gulf Coast residents and cleanup workers. The settlement was approved in federal court earlier this year but the process could drag out, as Rucker noted that some settlements from the Exxon-Valdez spill 25 years ago have only recently been concluded.
“Research from the Exxon Valdez reports that it takes a community at least five years to emotionally recover from a disaster like this,” Rucker said. “I think it’s going to be quite a shock when we leave the community.”
Other types of recovery can take much longer. An NOAA report on the environmental condition 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill found lingering oil in areas of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska nearly as toxic as it was immediately following the spill, despite expectations that weathering would leave oil deposits with little potential to release toxic components into the environment.
But there is little existing research into long-term health effects of the 1989 spill.
The goal of the GuLF Study, sponsored by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), is to monitor the long-term health effects of the Deep Horizon disaster. According to study director Dr. Dale Sandler, biological specimens such as blood, hair and toenails collected from people in the Gulf states who participated in the cleanup will be tested for toxins to help researchers eventually determine what, if any, effects working in or near clean-up sites had on patient health.
Sandler is cautious about giving a timeline on when the findings might be available because “we want to get it right,” she said.
Josh Walter was among the first wave of cleanup workers on the beach following the spill. The Mobile resident worked 14 months as a member of CrowderGulf’s disaster recovery and debris removal team.
“We were handling between 400 and 600 pounds of oil a day in the form of tar balls and big chunks they call tar mats that we dug out of the sand and sawed down,” Walter recalled.
Six months into the job, the headaches started along with “this feeling of being woozy,” he said. “It finally got bad enough I went to see a doctor.”
But the doctor was unable to give Walter a definitive cause for the issue. “He said nothing in my day-to-day life should be causing it … Eventually I put two and two together — I figured it must have to do with the job.”
Walter is still suffering from headaches almost three years after his assignment ended, but says he has not yet sought further treatment, or filed a claim with BP.
“I just haven’t had time,” he said. “And it’s become less prevalent — five times a month at most. Still that’s more than I did get. I never used to get headaches.”
Rucker has similar concerns about people forgetting about the long-term consequences of the Gulf oil spill.
“The oil comes ashore and you’ve got the tar balls, and you’ve got the water, and you have all that,” she said. “But when that goes away and you don’t really have anything visually to show, you’re easily forgotten.