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The BP Oil Disaster, 10 Years Later


It's been 10 years since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. Eleven rig workers were killed, and the explosion created the worst offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this look back at the BP oil spill.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In the dark of night on April 20, 2010, oil and gas erupted from a well nearly a mile deep, causing the Deepwater Horizon to explode and catch fire. Nearby boats tried to rescue men from the water before Coast Guard helicopters got there.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Take it up back slowly. Prepare to take the load. OK. We're taking the load - survivors clear.

ELLIOTT: Eleven rig workers were never found.

LEO LINDER: But even now 10 years later, the grief fills me up, and it's too fresh.

ELLIOTT: Leo Linder was an engineer on the rig that night.

LINDER: What happened on the Horizon didn't start on the rig. It started in corporate boardrooms. It ended on the rig.

ELLIOTT: A series of safety failures, including a faulty blowout preventer, are to blame, according to federal investigations and court rulings over the last 10 years. Early on, BP and federal officials downplayed how much oil was gushing into the Gulf unchecked for nearly three months as the company made repeated attempts to close the well. In all, more than three million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf, fouling more than 1,100 miles of shoreline stretching from Texas to Florida and leaving a trail of environmental and economic devastation. It was an unprecedented disaster, says David Muth, director of Gulf restoration for the National Wildlife Federation.

DAVID MUTH: Those of us in the Gulf at the time - it was really frightening and harrowing because we didn't know what to expect or how long it could last. And we just sort of sat there helplessly watching the oil come ashore and watching all of the attempts to contain it and corral it fail.

ELLIOTT: There were dramatic images of oiled pelicans and dead dolphins. Hundreds of Gulf fishermen out of work because of the pollution became part of the response, launching their boats with oil boom in a futile attempt to contain the spill. The Wildlife Federation has a new report looking at how various Gulf species have recovered in 10 years. Muth says it's a mixed bag. Some of the most heavily affected species are deepwater corals, oysters and bottlenose dolphins, which suffered the largest and longest-lasting die-off.

MUTH: Those that survived, those that took the hit and lived through it, are still showing physical effects today.

ELLIOTT: Effects like stillbirths and lung disease. And scientists say the Gulf dolphin population could take decades to recover. Muth says the good news 10 years out is the unprecedented amount of money that has gone into both monitoring the Gulf ecosystem and funding restoration projects. In all, BP has spent nearly $70 billion for cleanup, economic compensation, court settlements and pollution fines. A couple of years after the spill, Captain Ryan Lambert of Cajun Fishing Adventures took me out to see lingering damage to bays and bayous in south Louisiana.

RYAN LAMBERT: You know, our whole life is upside down. It's on hold. We're waiting to see what happens.

ELLIOTT: Lambert is part of the Coalition to Restore the Mississippi River Delta, groups working to address Louisiana's coastal land loss crisis - a crisis exacerbated by the BP oil spill. He runs a fleet of charter boats and has a fishing lodge in Buras, La. Today, he says, it's mostly a ghost town as businesses have struggled to recover. And now things are on hold again amid the coronavirus pandemic.

LAMBERT: This is the third time we're wiped out for one reason or another. Well, we had Hurricane Katrina, and then we had the oil spill, and now we got the coronavirus. So you work your whole life to build something like this, and every five years you get completely wiped out. It makes you resilient, to say the least.

ELLIOTT: Lambert had built his business back up but says he's already lost nearly a half a million dollars in bookings since March. He's let go of 12 fishing guides and says just like the oil spill, no one knows when this disaster will be over.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Ala.


NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.