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Elegy for the Gulf: Seven Years After Deepwater Horizon

When I was a little girl, I spent my summers in Gulf Shores, Alabama. My family has visited the white sugar sand of the Gulf Coast for generations. After long days spent building sandcastles and boogie boarding, we would watch the sun slip away. The point where the sea met the sky would begin to blur until we could no longer tell where one began and the other ended. The horizon was vast and infinite and we swore that if you looked far enough, you could see the curve of the earth. That was a long time ago, and the last time I dug my toes into the Alabama sand and watched the sun set, the horizon was dotted with orange glow of oil and gas rigs. That was before the Deepwater Horizon, before I walked along the oiled beaches of Fort Pickens, Florida, and before I could even begin to imagine the ecological and economic devastation of a massive oil spill.

In some ways, the aftermath of 4.9 million barrels spilled into the Gulf is easy to comprehend- there are oiled pelicans, dead dolphins, unemployed oystermen- it’s tragic but it’s visible. It’s the everyday environmental tragedies that are unfolding in the Gulf that go unnoticed. Take, for example, a particular well owned by Taylor Energy, that has been leaking since it was damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. There is an eight-mile oil slick that surrounds the site, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement estimates that the site, if left unchecked, “could continue [to leak] for 100 years or more.

The AP has reported that there are more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico- some dating from as far back as the 1940s and many that are neglected and unmonitored. Even more problematic are the countless wells that have been “temporarily abandoned.” By law, companies are supposed to reuse or permanently plug these wells within a year, but more than 1,000 wells have been “temporarily abandoned” for over a decade. How many ticking time bombs are rusting away just off the Louisiana coastline?

Of course, the environmental damage from oil and gas drilling isn’t limited to spills or leaks. Just the process of drilling wells releases toxic heavy metals- mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium and toxins such as benzene and arsenic.  There are impacts to marine life, but also to humans as we end up at the top of the food chain.

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Scientists continue to study the impacts of the spill to marine life, the environment, and us. Businesses along the Gulf Coast are only now getting back on their feet- if they were able to survive the disaster in the first place. It’s clear to me that a massive oil spill never means total recovery- just shifting the baseline and accepting a new normal. Normal means tarballs on the beach, disappearing wetlands, and dolphin die-offs. This is what we accept in exchange for oil rigs off our coast.

While the Gulf of Mexico struggles to survive, the new Administration is preparing to expand offshore drilling. I can only wonder if those advocating for more oil and gas off our coasts have ever bothered to get to know our coasts. Have they sunk their toes into the sand or reeled in a redfish or watched an oysterman raking the bay like his father and grandfather did? To know the Gulf is to love the Gulf, and loving the Gulf means protecting it for future generations.