MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. It's been two years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident killed 11 rig workers and unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The oil stopped flowing long ago, and BP has spent billions of dollars to clean up beaches and waterways. But this important question lingers: Is the disaster over? NPR's Debbie Elliott went to the Gulf Coast to find an answer.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Oil fouled some 1,100 miles of shoreline when the blown-out well was gushing unchecked. But on most spots along the Gulf Coast today, you don't see obvious signs of the spill.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES SPLASHING)
ELLIOTT: Here in Orange Beach, Alabama, the clear emerald waters of the Gulf roll onto sugar-white sand beaches.
PHILLIP WEST: You know, we have a nice clean beach now, night and day from two years ago.
ELLIOTT: Phillip West is the environmental manager for the city and battled the globs of orangey-brown crude that washed ashore.
WEST: And, you know, one of the great things that I can say about the beach now is we got our squeak back, which indicates to me the sand is clean. It doesn't have that WD-40 feel to it like we had during the spill.
ELLIOTT: But as we squeak along in the sand and take a closer look, there's a lingering problem.
WEST: Like a little fragment, a little tar ball.
ELLIOTT: He finds several quarter-sized clumps of weathered oil. BP crews still scour the beaches here daily. West says there tends to be a spike in tar balls like this after a storm moves through, churning up the surf.
WEST: Which, you know, two years later, indicates that there's a source somewhere nearby. And about the only source that could be would be a submerged tar mat. So that still concerns us a little bit.
ELLIOTT: West says what's out of sight isn't necessarily out of mind.
WEST: There was cancer, maybe we're in remission. We just have to watch it constantly from now on.
ELLIOTT: Scientists are watching too. Scores of public and private research projects are underway to determine the impact of the spill, including the federally-mandated Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which will help determine how much BP should pay for polluting the Gulf. Early findings indicate damage to deepwater coral reefs, mangroves, dolphin and some fish species. But scientists warn showing cause and effect in a large ecosystem like the Gulf of Mexico is a challenge. And it's exacerbated by the lack of baseline data on the state of the Gulf pre-spill. Still, the problems don't appear to be as severe as some predicted when the disaster was unfolding.
DR. GEORGE CROZIER: We were panic-stricken.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ELLIOTT: George Crozier is the former director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, south of Mobile. Two years later, he's less afraid.
CROZIER: I don't see this changing the ecosystem of the north central Gulf. I don't see it tipping something into catastrophe.
ELLIOTT: Crozier says the acute impacts on the Gulf don't appear widespread, but he says it will take decades to understand the chronic problems the spill created. Problems that are dealing a severe blow to an already fragile coast in south Louisiana.
DAVE MARINO: Are we ready?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR BOAT)
ELLIOTT: Captain Dave Marino, from Myrtle Grove, navigates a center console bay boat through the Barataria Basin - a collection of canals, bays and bayous south of New Orleans, on the west side of the Mississippi River.
MARINO: And it's real deep through here, and the tide comes in and out real strong here. And that's a lot of the reason why the area that was affected by the oil got the oil, because it pulled it through like a funnel almost, an hourglass, I guess.
ELLIOTT: This region suffered some of the heaviest oiling, accumulating in what's known as Bay Jimmy. On a tiny marsh island here, David Muth, with the National Wildlife Federation, shows me how the oil has persisted in the environment.
DAVID MUTH: Well, here, you can actually see oil seeping out right here.
(SOUNDBITE OF OIL SQUISHING)
MUTH: Just come out of the peat - thick, liquid oil two years later. And like you can see, little fiddler crabs popping out from down in there, and they're down in that oil.
ELLIOTT: There are also pools of water with fresh oil sheen on top, large tar balls, and on the edge of marsh, dead sections now covered with hardened oil.
MUTH: That's where there was a layer of oil that is weathered now, and it's just a thick layer of tar that prevents the grass from growing up through it.
ELLIOTT: It's almost like you would see on a road. It looks like asphalt.
MUTH: Yeah. Well, the term is asphaltene, and that's a pretty good description of it. And if you smell it, that's what it smells like. It smells like fresh asphalt.
ELLIOTT: The question, he says, is can the Gulf ecosystem recover after absorbing some 200 million gallons of oil?
MUTH: The deep concern is not so much about this which is so visible, but this is an indication that the stuff stays in the system. There's no magic bullet for an oil spill. Once you spill oil, you have spilled oil, and there's no putting it back.
ELLIOTT: This spill took the hardest toll on a system already in decline. Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field of land every 15 minutes. And the oil, still fouling 200 miles of shore, has accelerated the erosion in places like Bay Jimmy. Captain Dave Marino has watched it happen.
MARINO: You can see it's falling apart. You know, where - just right here where the boat is parked last year was land. All of it is getting eaten up because there's, you know, the vegetation is dead.
ELLIOTT: Fishermen here want Congress to approve a plan to steer BP fines for Gulf restoration projects, like diverting Mississippi River water and sediments to rebuild marsh. Ryan Lambert has been a Cajun fishing and hunting guide for 31 years and is alarmed by the decline he's seen in the last two.
RYAN LAMBERT: This island should be covered with shorebirds, and there are none - ought to be nesting in here. Any island before this oil spill, you come up to an island like this and you can't even hear yourself think. And look, it's void of life.
ELLIOTT: Lambert says his speckled trout catch is down 98 percent.
LAMBERT: You know, we're used to going out to - go right here where this water is coming through and to pick up 40 fish right there no problem in a half hour. You go try to catch a fish there right now, it's not happening.
ELLIOTT: Lambert says he's tired of hearing that everything is fine, come on down, a message in some of BP's ads.
LAMBERT: You know, our whole life is upside down, on hold, waiting to see what happens.
ELLIOTT: Two years later, he says, it's not fine. It's far from over. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.