One year ago, an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon platform caused a four-month-long oil spill, the worst in US history. The communities and economy of the Gulf Coast are still suffering from the consequences.
Deepwater Horizon leaked oil for four months
Captain Scott stands on his white boat in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. This is the point where the many arms of North America's largest river flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The region is dotted with innumerable small islands covered with long reeds. In the salt water, millions of fish swim about while not far away dolphin families take refuge. In the sweeter water, large alligators look and wait for something to eat.
"The oil came through the Barataria Bay just behind us," Scott says.
As the oil washed up on the delta's marshland, it accumulated up to 20 meters, Scott remembers. Scott experienced the Deepwater Horizon spill from the very beginning. He belongs to the fishermen that BP chartered to clear the delta of oil.
The remains of the black crude oil can still be found in the marshland. As Scott docks his boat and steps onto one of the islands, the oil sticks to his shoes like bad luck.
"You'll never be able to get that off your shoes," Scott says.
Many environmentalists presume that there is still oil on the sea bed. That is not the case in the river delta at least. Scott grabs an oar from the back of his boat and pokes around a bit in the water. He scrapes a handful of mud off the oar's surface and lets it slide through his fingers.
"What I grabbed here from the bottom of the Delta is just earth," he says.
A loud shot goes off. Environmentalists have set up propane gas tanks in this otherwise peaceful water paradise that sound a deafening bang at irregular intervals. They are supposed to prevent birds from nesting in the contaminated area.
The environment still suffers from the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, according to Marine Biologist Moby Solangi. He heads the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in the US state of Mississippi. Together with 30 other scientists and 100 volunteers, he is trying to find out why so many dead dolphins have recently washed up on the beaches of the Gulf Coast.
They have a suspicion that the tons of chemicals BP dumped in the water to break up the oil could be responsible for the deaths.
Solangi takes us into a huge white tent with a dozen basins the size of bathtubs. He lifts a turtle from one of the containers.
"The animal came to us covered with oil," Solangi says.
The turtle belongs to a certain family that is considered endangered.
Oil washed onto the shores of the Gulf Coast, hurting industry and environment
Insufficient security precautions
The catastrophe happened because the servicers of the oil platform Deepwater Horizon ignored security precautions. After an explosion 780 million liters of raw oil streamed uncontrollably into the sea for four months. A representative of BP was not willing to comment.
The company Tidewater, based in New Orleans, was more willing to talk. The company serviced the BP platform by hauling in necessary materials from the coast. One of their ships evacuated 100 workers from the platform after the disaster.
Joseph M. Bennett, executive vice president of Tidewater, gives assurances that the industry is now better prepared for such disasters. Stricter guidelines are now in force. At the same time he complains how Washington has reduced the number of permits it issues for companies to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fishing industry hard hit
The fishing industry was hit especially hard by the catastrophe. Washington shut down the fishing grounds after the oil spill. For months, the fishing boats stayed in their ports with the exception of those that BP rented to help with the clean up.
Fisherman Dennis Landry - from Lockport, Louisiana - does not like to think about those times.
"I had to let a lot of employees go," he says. "I cancelled the insurance on our fleet of boats - I cut back on all of our costs."
He has lived for months on savings.
In recent days Landry and the other local fishermen have begun to deliver the first crabs since the catastrophe. Landry has to find new buyers for his goods. After the oil spill, he lost both his suppliers and his customers. The image of healthy fish from the Gulf region has been ruined for the foreseeable future.
Michael Hecht, the chairman of the regional trade association "Greater New Orleans," cites the results of a survey his association recently conducted.
"In the USA, 50 percent more people now ask about the origin of seafood and fish," Hecht says.
Energy industry provides jobs
Local fishermen still struggle to sell their goods
Richard McKnight, a fisherman from the Grand Isle Peninsula just before the Mississippi Delta, is furious with BP like many of his colleagues. But he wants the energy industry to stay in this region. Oil brings money and secure jobs. He does not want to move away. Like most people in his profession, he's biding his time.
BP is still cleaning up many beaches, also on Grand Isle. The oil conglomerate has set up a reparations fund worth $20 billion (14 billion euros) as compensation to the Gulf of Mexico's economy. The fund is administered by a lawyer in Washington.
The people in the Gulf are used to setbacks and they do not give up quickly. They survived the hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The return of the first tourists to the Gulf gives them hope.
Author: Miodrag Soric/ sk
Editor: Rob Mudge