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A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oilspill disaster. Date: June 16, 2010. (Image Credit: Kris Krüg)

A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oilspill disaster. Date: June 16, 2010. (Image Credit: Kris Krüg)

On Monday, BP declared that the Gulf of Mexico is returning to its “baseline condition” following the largest oil spill in U.S. history. This announcement seemed to deliberately ignore the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard is still removing a 25,000-pound “tar mat” from East Grande Terre Island, as BP had been attempting to clean the island since at least February. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has called BP’s statement “inappropriate as well as premature.”

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 crewmen and spilling some 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite many reports and many, many restoration projects, the damage to the region has been incalculable. Wildlife throughout the region has suffered birth defects, poor health and high mortality and the seafood industry, as documented in Nailah Jefferson’s film Vanishing Pearls, has yet to recover.

Despite all this, BP, which leased and operated the Deepwater Horizon, has protested that it is being fined too much for the disaster. In September, a federal judge found the company liable for $18 billion in damages due to its “gross negligence” in overseeing the rig. In its five-year-report, Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration, BP claims to have spent over $14 billion in emergency response and cleanup already, including $1.3 billion for 240 natural resource damage assessment studies.

In the report, BP claims that most of the environmental damage from the Horizon spill “occurred immediately after the accident…in areas near the wellhead and along oiled beaches and marshes.” These affected areas, it continues, are recovering, with data indicating no significant long-term impact to the population of any gulf species.

NOAA’s response to this report was immediate and incendiary: “Citing scientific studies conducted by experts from around the Gulf, as well as this council, BP misinterprets and misapplies data while ignoring published literature that doesn’t support its claims and attempts to obscure our role as caretakers of the critical resources damaged by the spill.”

For example, in its December 2010 OSAT-1 report, BP quotes the U.S. Coast Guard on-site coordinator as saying that, based on BP’s data, “there is no actionable oil in the water or sediments of the deep water or offshore zones.”

This is at odds with studies of new generations of Gulf killifish, a marsh minnow that showed signs of oil poisoning back in 2010. Following the Macondo blowout, scientists “confirm[ed] that hydrocarbon toxins remain in marsh sediments and continue to cause biological impairments that were precursors for species-wide collapses in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill.”

According to Andrew Whitehead, who led an LSU team in studying adult killifish from oiled areas around Barataria Bay, “We were detecting cellular responses to toxins that are predictive of impairment of reproduction and embryo development.”

Dolphin populations in Barataria Bay have also been significantly impacted. According to the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, “Nearly half the bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay tested in mid-2011 to assess natural resources’ damage in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill were in ‘guarded or worse’ condition, including 17 percent that were not expected to survive.”

In April of last year, Ryan Lambert, who owns a charter fishing company in Louisiana, told ThinkProgress he was still seeing dead dolphins wash ashore. “We still see little telltale signs,” he said. “There’s crabs with holes in their shells we’re seeing that we haven’t seen before, and I’ve never seen baby dolphins die.”

Workers cleaning up a beach during Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Image Credit: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

Workers cleaning up a beach during Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Image Credit: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

And Then There’s the Tar Mat

Located off Louisiana’s southeast coast, East Grand Terre was one of the area’s heaviest hit by the oil spill. A tar mat is formed when oil is weighed down by Mississippi River silt and sinks to the bottom to be covered by sand and sediments. According to The Lens, these mats have been frequently uncovered by southerly winds, “especially during tropical storms.”

The Lens also reports that BP has been cleaning the beach on East Grande Terre since February 23 but did not notify the Coast Guard of the mat until March 13. The Coast Guard is now attempting to clear the 25,000-pound mat, which measures 30 meters wide and 1.5 meters long.

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