Also known as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon disaster which occurred in 2010 is regarded as the biggest marine oil spill in recorded history. The spill released more volume of hydrocarbon material than the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in 1989. The Deepwater Horizon incident was caused by an explosion on the offshore oil rig on 20th April, it finally sank on 22nd April (Beyer, Trannum, Bakke, Hodson, & Collier, 2016). The explosion led to the death of 11 workers and a massive environmental disaster caused by the widespread oil spill (Wallace et al., 2017). At the time of the accident, the workers on the Deepwater Horizon well were drilling an oil well within the Macondo prospect. The well was located approximately five thousand feet under the surface of the ocean (Beyer et al., 2016). The well extended for about 18,000 feet into the seabed. The disaster was precipitated by a faulty cement plug on the well which caused an oil and gas leak. The cement plug held the core of the well, and it was too weak to hold the resultant pressures of the well. The weak core allowed a gush of natural gas which leaked up to the surface where it ignited on the rig platform. The explosion led to a loss of lives and 17 workers sustained injuries. The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig ruptured the riser, through which drilling mud was being delivered to the well. The loss of the drilling mud pressure meant that the upward pressure of the oil and gas could not be counteracted and the oil leaked into the sea. The accident was a massive environmental disaster with up to one thousand barrels of oil leaking into the ocean every day.
The oil leak initiated by the Deepwater Horizon incident was estimated to be 3.19 million barrels, moreover, hundreds of thousands of tons of hydrocarbon gases were released into the sea (Beyer et al., 2016). The spill response entailed the application of 7000m3of oil dispersing chemicals (Beyer et al., 2016). The hydrocarbon gases dissolved in the water, and they contaminated the habitats of deep water organisms. Additionally, the oil lumped into oily aggregated pieces which sank to the bottom of the ocean. The oil slick on top of the water was pushed to the shoreline, and it affected marshes, deep water corals, beaches, estuaries, and wetlands. These formed important breeding areas and habitats for several species (Beyer et al., 2016). Environmental officials took the action of closing the area around the spill to fishing activities due to the fear that the seafood could have been contaminated by the oil. Thibodeaux et al. (2011) estimate that the long-term fate of the spill entails the presence of oil residuals, persistence, and the chronic impacts which may last from months to years to several decades. The chemicals used to disperse the oil may continue to accumulate in the biota for longer periods.
The spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico which is home to a number of species such as different sea turtles, whales, and dolphins. Wallace et al. (2017) note that the spill affected a variety of abiotic and biotic natural resources in the marine ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Oil spills affect ocean organisms in a number of ways. First, because fish breathe by passing water through their gills and trapping the oxygen, oil laden water can come into contact with and adhere to the gills, thus making breathing difficult. Moreover, the chemical dispersants used during the spill could have been absorbed into the bodies of the fish, and this could have intoxicated the fish or killed them altogether. The oil spill can also lead to oxygen depletion in the water and vegetation oiling, particularly in the marshlands (Thibodeaux et al., 2011). The oil is bound to accumulate in the local environment where it will take a long time for the hydrocarbons to degrade. Additionally, there are fractions in the environment like in the sea bottom sediments, sandy covered areas, estuarine sediments, and wetland soils where the leaked hydrocarbons will last for much longer due to the slow degradation process of the oil (Thibodeaux et al., 2011). Around 40 percent of the dispersing chemicals used were injected directly at the well head through a novel procedure which heralded adverse environmental consequences for the unreleased oil (Beyer et al., 2016).
The intentional burning of surface oil is usually used in remediating oil spills (Perring et al., 2011). There were a number of burn events where the surface floating oil slick was set on fire, and the fires consumed approximately 250,000 barrels of surface oil slicks (Beyer et al., 2016). The airborne soot particles resulting from the burning oil settled on the surface of the water and sank to the bottom of the ocean while clumped together with some unburnt oil. Approximately 4 percent of the unburnt material was released into the atmosphere in the form of black carbon (Perring et al., 2011). Animals at the severely polluted sites exhibited a slower growth. Beyer et al. (2016) note that the brown shrimps at very polluted sites grew at a slower rate that those that were not exposed. The spill led to a variation in the gene expression of Gulf killifish. The fish were sampled from marshes that had high levels of oil pollution, and they were found to suffer from reproductive impairment more than a year after the accident (Beyer et al., 2016).
The Gulf of Mexico area is a natural habitat for local bird populations, as well as for several migratory bird species. The brown pelican and the laughing gull were seriously affected by the spill and they exhibited the highest mortality (Beyer et al., 2016). The negative effects of oil exposure manifested in the birds through symptoms such as instant mortality and adverse long-term effects on the birds’ health and behavioral patterns (Beyer et al., 2016). Beyer et al. (2016) further state that the oil spill also affected the birds’ natural habitats, and this was carried over to the subsequent generations. There was also a rise in the mortality of sea turtles which seriously affected the turtles that were native to the Gulf of Mexico area.
The oil spill affected the economies of the communities around the Gulf of Mexico. The ban on fishing was far-reaching because fishing was a major economic activity in the area. Tourism was also affected as visitors kept away from the oil polluted beaches in the area. The residents who depended on tourism and fishing were directly affected by the disaster. The Gulf of Mexico area gradually recovered from the accident with the slow dissipation of the oil in the area. Fishing activities resumed in the area after six months.
The government formed a National Commission on the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The investigation was also backed up with a number congressional hearings and briefings that touched on the issue of the accident (Gannon, 2012). The British Petroleum company and Transocean, the company that had been contracted to dig the well conducted their individual investigations to find out what triggered the spill. Congressional hearings commenced even before the oil leak had been sealed. The hearing targeted the individual players in the accident, and it questioned the immediate actions that led to the well’s rapture. The chief executive officer of BP America recognized the company’s liability as outlined in the oil pollution act, and he agreed that the company would cater for the clean up costs, as well as any genuine claims that would arise (Gannon, 2012). Gannon (2012) further states that a report by Transocean found BP culpable for the accident. The report stated that the well was in the purview of the oil company because it had a complete control of its operations. It then stated that the contractors were under the dominion of BP, which had to approve their work (Gannon, 2012). BP agreed to settle claims regarding the accident with the plaintiff’s steering committee. However, it was still liable for any other claims by the federal, state, and local authorities. The company was also suspended from participating in any new federal contracts; however, the ban was later lifted. Some officials of both BP and Transocean were slapped with criminal charges arising from the spill.
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