One year after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, communities along the Gulf of Mexico are struggling to recover

Oil slicks lapping up on to the sands; fish and seabirds caked in inky, toxic goo; ashen-faced fishermen watching their livelihoods being swallowed up. These images became ubiquitous after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire after a drilling explosion and sunk into the ocean in April last year, releasing nearly five million barrels of oil.

The fishing fields have since reopened and BP, who held the rig’s lease, have written enormous cheques. But, in places like Barataria, Louisiana – home to shrimpers like Tracy Kuhns’ husband – the damage is still being revealed.

“Barataria’s a beautiful place. There are no roads between us and the Gulf, just lakes and bays and bayous all through,” Kuhns says. “My kids, my grandkids, all play there and they fish – they work on the boats from the time they’re little.

“It’s our whole culture – we’re really connected to that natural resource – it’s more than just an ecology that has been devastated, it’s our entire way of life.”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster stands alone as the worst oil spill in history. The full toll exacted cannot yet be known but there is, of course, a parallel discussion of who is responsible and how much they should pay.

“It stops with BP,” senior Greenpeace adviser Charlie Kronick says. “And they prevaricated – at first they said, ‘oh, there’s not that much oil’ and then they realised that ‘oh, yes, there is that much’. The best you can say is that there was a lack of transparency, the worst is that they were blatantly dishonest.”

As the disaster unfolded, the US government did its best to mobilise, to appear engaged. President Obama was on the scene, glad-handing locals, promising retribution and support in equal measure. But, according to Kronick, there was little the Obama administration could do.

“The only people who could stop the oil were the people who caused it,” Kronick says. “It was like a factory was on fire, but the only people who could put it out were the people who set it alight.”

Beneath the surface

In communities along the gulf, the damage to the eco-system, on which so many depend, is an obvious concern. But there  is a secondary worry that the oil has been masked rather than cleaned up.  

“BP just sank it to the bottom,” Kuhns says. “It will take longer for us to recover by allowing them to sink it – and hide it.  “People are getting sick because they sprayed corrective all over the oil – this stuff is banned in the UK because it’s toxic to the marine life and to people. But they sprayed two million gallons into the gulf.”

Kuhns is 57 – she has five children and and 17 grandchildren – and says fishing families all along the coast, 1000 miles east-west, are suffering.

“Each fishing vessel is family-owned and operated. We don’t have these big factory trawlers,” she says. “And our dollars stay in our communities.  “Everyone just wants this story to go away but what we’re doing is saying that it’s OK for BP to leave that oil at the bottom of the Gulf, doing harm to our natural resources and to people.”

It is hard to imagine a more persuasive endorsement for Greenpeace’s campaign to leave oil dependence behind; nor is it easy to envisage a more custom-designed bogeyman than BP.

“This is the beginning of the end of the oil age,” Kronick says bluntly.  “BP are running ads of nice, shiny pics of the Gulf with no oil in it. They are still the biggest producers of oil in that region and their main objective is to get back to doing business.

“Regulators need to get real about the fact that risks are going to get worse and not better. The cost of doing business has got to be higher. The lesson is that if you work on the edge, you’re going to fall off.”

But in Barataria, and in hundreds of towns like it, the concern is less expansive, more immediate.

“The oil came pouring in – it’s in the water, it’s in the air,” Kuhns says. “What are people going to do? I don’t know – it’s frightening. No one knows what’s going to happen. We’re just hoping.”

– Tom Sturrock