Oil Companies Were Not Held Accountable for 10.8 Million Gallons of Oil Spilled in Gulf of Mexico
The devastation to lives and homes caused by Hurricane Katrina masked a massive crude oil spill that the hurricane caused by damaging rigs and storage tanks in the Gulf of Mexico. The damage was made worse a few weeks later when Hurricane Rita struck the area. The federal regulators that oversee oil and gas operation in the Gulf estimated that more than 400 pipelines and 100 drilling platforms were damaged, leading to 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf — the same amount as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Now, 14 years later, not one assessment of the damage to natural resources has been carried out. There is no plan to help restore impacted ecosystems. And not one of the 140 responsible parties has faced a fine or even a citation, according to an exclusive investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
Instead of having to pay fines, the companies whose oil spilled into the water have actually been reimbursed $19 million from a federal trust for the oil they lost, claiming that the spills and damage were caused by an "unforeseeable act of God," according to the review by ProPublica and its partners.
The Act of God defense holds a lot of weight in Louisiana. Adam Babich, former director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told the journalists at ProPublica and its partners that while the act of God defense does not usually release oil companies from liability, it does weaken arguments to hold them accountable.
"We don't normally penalize [companies] for act of God events," said Greg Langley of the Department of Environmental Quality to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate."We just get right to remediation."
The full scale of the damage may never be fully understood without a comprehensive review and assessment. Even a tiny amount of spilled crude oil has a devastating impact and damages coastline that protects inland areas from storms.
The oil that seeps into the marshes affects worms and snails, which are eaten by birds and fish. Marsh plants begin to die, which allows saltwater to eat away at the coastline. That allows the next storm to push further inland, according to Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club, who spoke to the ProPublica investigation.
"I think it's an outrage that they haven't made any progress," Malek-Wiley said to ProPublica. "Here we are 14 years later and they haven't done anything. A year after Katrina, things had settled down significantly. I think the oil response team should have been moving forward with environmental damage claims."
The inaction seems to violate the Oil Pollution Act, passed by Congress in response to the Valdez oil spill. That law mandates federal and state agencies to work with the companies to assess damage to natural resources. After a comprehensive report is completed on the value of the affected plants, soil, water and wildlife, the responsible parties must foot the bill for restoration efforts, according to the ProPublica review.
"It's pretty clear what the value of money is in a place like Louisiana, where we have these restoration needs," Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, to the investigative journalists at ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. "Every dollar that's not collected [in fines] is a dollar that we can't spend on this work."
By not completing an environmental assessment, Louisiana is missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental remediation money. Cochran said that if the oil companies responsible for the rigs and storage tanks paid for restoration at the same rate that BP paid for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then Louisiana would have $700 million more in its restoration budget, according to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
"It's a lot of work that's desperately needed but that is only possible because that [BP settlement] money became available," Cochran said to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate.
Since Hurricane Katrina swept over the Gulf waters with category 5 strength, nothing has been done to protect against storm-related oil spills or the damage to the environment, according to the investigation.
Scientists predict that future storms, which will increase in intensity due to the climate crisis, will exacerbate environmental damage.
"In the Gulf, storms are predicted to be less frequent but more intense when they do come," said Sunshine Van Bael, an ecologist at Tulane University who evaluated damage to marsh ecosystems from the BP oil spill, to to ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. "One thing that storms do is, if oil has been buried underneath the marsh because it wasn't rehabilitated, a storm could come along and whip that back up to the surface. So, the aftereffects of the oil spills might be greater [with climate change] since the storms are predicted to be more intense."
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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