Report — From the June 2015 issue

Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea

Following the trail of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico

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One morning in March of last year, I set out from Gulfport, Mississippi, on a three-week mission aboard the U.S. Navy research vessel Atlantis. The 274-foot ship, painted a crisp white and blue, stood tall in the bright sunlight. On its decks were winches, cranes, seafloor-mapping sonar, a machine shop, and five laboratories. Stowed in an alcove astern was Alvin, the federal government’s only manned research submarine. “Research vessel Atlantis outbound,” A. D. Colburn, the ship’s captain, reported into the ship radio.

The water was calm and the bridge crew quiet as they steered us into open water. For the next fourteen hours, we would sail toward the site of BP’s Macondo well, where, in April 2010, a blowout caused the largest offshore-drilling oil spill in history. Once there, Atlantis’s crew would launch Alvin and guide it to the bottom of the ocean, reaching depths as great as 7,200 feet below the surface. Over the next twenty-two days they would send the submersible down seventeen times, to gather animal, plant, water, and sediment samples. Their goal was to determine how BP’s spill had affected the ocean’s ecosystem from the seabed up. I would get the chance to join them in the submarine as they went closer to the Macondo wellhead than anyone had gone since the blowout.

Illustration by John Ritter

Illustration by John Ritter

Data gathered by the Atlantis would likely be used in the federal legal proceedings against BP, which began in December 2010. A few months after our mission, U.S. district judge Carl Barbier found the company guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct. In January 2015, he ruled that the amount of oil the company was responsible for releasing into the Gulf totaled some 134 million gallons, a decision both sides have appealed. By the time this article went to press, Barbier had yet to make his third and final ruling, which will determine how much BP owes in penalties under the Clean Water Act. (If his judgment about the size of the spill is not overturned, the company will face a $13.7 billion fine.) Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior are concluding an ecological-damages assessment to determine how much BP must pay to restore the Gulf Coast. The trial and the assessment are likely to result in the largest penalty ever leveled against an oil company.1

1 Some of the funding for the Atlantis’s mission came from a $500 million initiative to study the effects of the spill. The program was endowed by BP in 2010, under pressure from the White House and Congress.

Dr. Samantha Joye, a biogeochemist at the University of Georgia and the lead scientist on the mission, estimated that 30 million gallons of oil from the BP spill remain in the Gulf — the equivalent of nearly three Exxon Valdez spills — and that about half of this amount has settled on the ocean floor, where its ecological effects could be devastating. A BP spokesman told me that most of the spilled oil had been removed, consumed, or degraded, and that there had been “very limited impact from the oil spill on the seafloor.” But Joye’s research indicates that any damage the oil has done to creatures inhabiting the deep-sea waters — from tube worms to sperm whales — threatens the ecosystem, harming organisms that rely on those species. Among those at risk are phytoplankton, the sea vegetation that produces about half of the planet’s oxygen. “If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”

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is the author of several books, including Black Tide (Wiley). Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Light, Sweet, Crude,” appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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