On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, setting off the nation's worst oil spill. An American flag lies in a slick of oil that washed ashore in Gulf Shores, Ala., July 4.
Left: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns on April 21, 2010. Most workers were evacuated, but 11 died. The rig sank the next day. Right: Pat Bordelon (right) consoles Micalet Kemp, whose brother, Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, was among those killed.
Gerald Herbert/AP; Gerald Herbert/AP
Left: Smoke rises above the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, April 21, 2010. Right: A worker watches as gas from the damaged wellhead is burned by the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise in a process known as flaring.
Gerald Herbert/AP; Patrick Kelley/USCG
Left: Smoke rises from a controlled burn above the oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico. Right: A May 24, 2010, NASA satellite image shows the slick spreading near the Mississippi Delta.
James Duncan Davis/Flickr; NASA
Left: A fisherman talks on his cellphone as he and others wait to hear about BP's plan to have fishermen help clean up the oil spill, April 29, 2010, in Venice, La. Right: President Obama makes his first public comments on the spill on April 29, nine days after the accident began.
Joe Raedle/Getty; Jim Watson/AFP/Getty
Left: Birds fly over oily water near the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico, south of Louisiana, April 29, 2010. Right: A U.S. Coast Guard Basler BT-67 releases oil dispersant, May 5, 2010.
Sean Gardner/Greenpeace/AP; Stephen Lehman/USCG
Left: Fishermen in Venice, La., listen about possible work with BP cleaning up the growing oil spill, April 30, 2010. Days later, the U.S. government banned fishing in areas affected by the spill. Right: Coast Guardsmen on Marine Vessel Braxton Perry recover a deflection boom during controlled burns in the Gulf of Mexico, May 7, 2010.
Joe Raedle/Getty; Justin Stumberg/USCG
Left: Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, inspects oil-covered reeds south of Venice, La., May 20, 2010. Right: Tony Hayward, then CEO of BP, answers questions from the media on an oil-stained beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 24, 2010.
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Left: Commercial fisherwoman Diane Wilson of Seadrift, Texas, fights back tears as she is handcuffed after interrupting a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing by pouring a jar of syrup made to look like oil over herself, June 9, 2010, in Washington, D.C. Right: Consumer advocate Barbara Holzer pours chocolate syrup over a model duck while demonstrating in front of BP's Washington offices, June 4, 2010.
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Left: A worker collects oil for research purposes in Bay Jimmy, off Grand Isle, La., June 15, 2010. Right: A pelican drenched in oil is cleaned at the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La., June 11, 2010.
Spencer Platt/Getty; Spencer Platt/Getty
Left: Vacationers enjoy the shoreline in Biloxi, Miss., July 4, 2010. Right: Egrets with oil-stained feathers stand on a barrier island in Cat Bay, near Grand Isle, La., June 28, 2010.
Joe Raedle/Getty; Joe Raedle/Getty
Left: Louisiana crab trap builder Shawn Platt stands before his traps, which were idled by a May 2010 federal government ban on all fishing in areas stretching from Louisiana to Florida. The fishing ban remains in effect in the immediate area where the Deepwater Horizon rig was located. Right: Then-BP CEO Tony Hayward testifies before Congress, June 17, 2010. Hayward resigned in July 2010.
John Moore/Getty; Alex Wong/Getty
Left: A New Orleans Times-Picayune front page reads "Oil Flow Halted," July 16, 2010, in New Orleans. Right: Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser walks through dead and oiled marshland in Port Sulphur, La., Jan. 7, 2011.
Mario Tama/Getty; Sean Gardner/Getty
Left: Ken Feinberg, the administrator of BP's $20 billion fund to compensate spill victims, shields his eyes from the sun as he listens to a question during a public meeting in Violet, La., June 25, 2010. Right: Claimants listen to Feinberg during a January 2011 town hall meeting in Grand Isle, La. As of April 15, 2011, only $4 billion has been paid out in claims.
Joe Raedle/Getty; Patrick Semansky/AP
Left: Grand Isle residents returned to sport fishing in the months following the spill. Right: A worker cleans tarballs on Waveland beach in Waveland, Miss., Dec 6, 2010.
Mario Tama/Getty; Mario Tama/Getty
Left: A dead sea turtle washed onto shore in Waveland, Miss., April 14, 2011. Right: Tourists lounge on the beach in Pass Christian, Miss., April 16, 2011. BP says it has made tourism payments of $18 million to Mississippi in an attempt to help draw tourists back to its beaches.
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Although images of dead birds and blackened marshes in the Gulf of Mexico are gone, many scientists say it's too early to declare a recovery. They suspect there could be hidden damage to the Gulf's marine life and marshes. And some of these scientists say research on the effects of the spill has been delayed or kept secret.
Among them is Michael Crosby, a senior scientist at Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory. The Gulf of Mexico is his baby. He was thrilled last year when BP promised to give scientists $500 million to research how the spill will affect marine life in the Gulf.
Eleven months later, he's still waiting to see the money.
"In a word," says Crosby, "it's stalled."
Last year, BP did give $50 million to several research groups in the Gulf. "But the rest of the money has been just caught up in a quagmire of bureaucracy, politics, turf issues," he says. "Why the hell isn't that money out there? We have lost a year, we have literally lost a year. That's a huge gap."
The first year after the spill was the best chance to track the oil and its effect on fish, shellfish, birds, and marshes — the whole complex web of marine life. Crosby says more scientists need to be out in the Gulf right now.
"Listen to those men and women who work on the water," Crosby says. "They are seeing dazed crabs now that don't survive the transport, the massive miscarriages, fetuses, dead baby dolphins. Well, there's no hard-core data to make that link, and 10 years from now will they ever come back? Well, who knows?"
A Lengthy Process
Last year, BP and Gulf states set about appointing a board of scientists – called the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Research Board — to review research proposals and hand out the remaining $450 million. Crosby and other scientists believe the process got bogged down by politicians and officials from Gulf states trying to influence the membership of the board and allocation of the money.
Board director and biologist Rita Colwell told NPR that it wasn't politics setting the timetable for the process, but a desire to get the best scientists on the board.
Bill Walker, a resources manager for the state of Mississippi, says his governor did object when BP first appointed a 10-member board that didn't have what he felt was sufficient representation from Gulf scientific institutions. Subsequently, BP told the five Gulf states that each could appoint two scientists to raise the board membership to 20. But Walker says he doesn't think that was a major delay.
In any case, BP and Gulf states didn't sign a deal on the process for giving out the money until last month — 10 months after BP announced it would create the research fund. The next step is to ask scientists to submit research proposals. Reviewing those could take months.
There is some money flowing to Gulf research. In addition to the $50 million BP has distributed to scientists, the federal government's National Science Foundation has also paid for Gulf expeditions. But Lisa Suatoni, a marine biologist with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, says most of that work was about oil — not marine life.
"What happened to the oil, what happened to the dispersants, what happened to the gases," she says, is what's been examined so far. "But the biologists and the ecologists haven't even laid out their puzzle pieces on the table yet, so there's no way of knowing what the environmental harm was. The answers are slipping through our fingers. It is a very depressing subplot to the oil spill."
Keeping Data Secret
There's one other big source of money for studying the health of the Gulf: the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the scientists who take NOAA money can't openly discuss or publish their conclusions yet. That's because the government is preparing legal action against BP under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process.
Christopher D'Elia, a Gulf researcher at Louisiana State University, says the NRDA clamps a lid of secrecy on research that many scientists find stifling.
"It may end up in court," he says. "You just can't publish your data, you don't get involved in the normal kind of scientific discourse we had, so it's a more constraining process. I don't think it works. I think it's a nightmare. I think the whole thing, it just grinds everything to a halt."
But NOAA officials point out that without NRDA, evidence against BP and its drilling partners could be compromised if published before a trial. They add that the data they pay scientists to gather are published on NOAA's website; it's the scientists' "interpretation" of that data that is secret.
Eventually, that information will all be released and the world will know just what happened to the Gulf. But Don Bosch, a biologist with the University of Maryland who sat on the official oil spill investigative commission, says the damage from the spill is only a small part of what ails the Gulf. "Even in the worst case," he says, "the effects of this spill wouldn't be as devastating as the tremendous loss of coastal wetlands, you know, the large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and all of those kinds of things."
Those assaults on the Gulf started long ago and are likely to continue long after the BP oil spill is just a statistic.