Postcard — April 1, 2014, 11:45 am

The Deepwater Horizon Spill, Four Years On

Preparing for an expedition to sites affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Dr. Samantha Joye in front of the Alvin aboard the Atlantis in Gulfport, Mississippi, March 29, 2014 © Antonia Juhasz

Dr. Samantha Joye in front of the Alvin aboard the Atlantis in Gulfport, Mississippi, March 29, 2014 © Antonia Juhasz

This week, for the first time since 2010, researchers will travel to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico to get a first-hand look at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. In April 2010, a blowout at BP’s Macondo oil well resulted in the deaths of eleven rig workers and the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. To continue their study of the effects, researchers will travel as deep as 7,200 feet, more than one mile down, in the Human-Occupied Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin, the same submarine that located a lost hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain in 1966 and surveyed the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986. I will be the only journalist to participate in any of these dives (I’ll do three) and to spend two weeks participating in this historic deep-sea research cruise.

On March 29, I joined several TV, newspaper, and wire reporters for a tour of the newly upgraded sub on board the Atlantis research vessel, which was docked in Gulfport, Mississippi, the day before departing for a nearly month-long series of investigations. In addition to the Alvin, the Atlantis is equipped to carry six science labs, seafloor-mapping sonar, satellite communications, winches, cranes, a machine shop, a crew of thirty-six, and more than two dozen scientists. Both the Alvin and Atlantis are owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

The Alvin is a round squat bubble, painted white except for a red top hatch and large silver jutting metal arms, giving it the impression of a somewhat menacing robotic marshmallow with a cherry on top. With the Alvin as a backdrop, Samantha Joye, the expedition’s chief scientist and a biogeochemist oceanographer at the University of Georgia, explained the coming cruise.

The submersible will revisit sites near the Macondo wellhead that Joye’s team observed in 2010 to be heavily impacted by oil, as well as newly identified ones. Research on that and subsequent trips also helped to identify the underwater plumes of Macondo oil that were floating deep in the sea. The goal this time will be to document and discover the ongoing impacts of the disaster, including how much oil remains; what has happened to the gulf, its sea life, and its ecosystems; and what the long-term impacts of this and other oil spills might be. “Just because people do not see as much oil on beaches,” said Joye, “does not mean the impacts of the oil spill are in the past.” In fact, barely a week ago some 300 pounds of Macondo oil washed up as tar balls on two Mississippi beaches because of low tides and high winds, according to local officials. 

The team of eight senior researchers is also planning to visit sites marked by sedimented oil and deep-sea hypersaline brine seeps — “very strange early earth environments that support bizarre forms of microbial life,” Joye explained of the latter. They will identify the novel (and in many cases unknown) organisms that survive in these hostile environments. The sites, she said, are “ideal analogs for earth’s early oceans and early types of microbial life and metabolisms, which tells us how all life evolved.”

The Alvin will dive twenty-two times during the cruise, at a cost of approximately $65,000 per dive. The voyage is being funded by the National Science Foundation and ECOGIG (Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf), a research consortia funded by a $500 million commitment BP made to independent research programs under pressure from the White House and Congress following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The expedition takes place just as the legal battles against BP approach a crucial stage, notably the Justice Department’s litigation against the company over exactly how much oil spilled from the Macondo well, what has happened to it, how much damage it has caused, what the long-term consequences will be, and how much money BP owes as a result. The next stage of the trial is set to begin in New Orleans in January.

Despite the legal fight, just this month the U.S. government lifted the ban it imposed on BP in 2010, which barred the company from bidding on government contracts. Within a week, BP participated in an auction for new Gulf oil-drilling leases, reportedly winning twenty-four bids, including some for areas near the Macondo well.

Antonia Juhasz is an oil and energy writer who has reported on the BP oil spill from the outset of the disaster. Her most recent book is Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill (Wiley 2011). She is covering the Atlantis voyage for Harper’s. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook for occasional updates prior to a forthcoming feature for the magazine.

Share
Single Page

More from Antonia Juhasz:

Postcard February 2, 2018, 12:16 pm

Shared Silence

What should be done with the symbols of white supremacy? 

Coda December 29, 2016, 12:09 pm

Light on the Horizon

Lessons from the BP oil disaster

From the June 2015 issue

Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea

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

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today