STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Five years ago today, a BP oil well deep in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. Eleven workers were killed on the rig above called the Deepwater Horizon, and that was just the start. In the chaos that followed, coast guard helicopters plucked survivors from the water.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, we're taking a load. Survivors clear.
INSKEEP: And then it slowly became clear just how much oil was flowing into the water. It was the nation's worst offshore environmental catastrophe. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on how the Gulf Coast is faring today.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In the spring and summer of 2010, oil gushed from the Macondo well for nearly three months. More than 3 million barrels of Louisiana light crude fouled beaches and wetlands from Texas to Florida, affecting wildlife and livelihoods. Today, the impacts linger. These remote barrier islands off the Louisiana coast are only accessible by boat.
BOB MARSHALL: You may have to get your feet a little wet here. That's it, far as I can go.
ELLIOTT: Longtime outdoorsman and environmental writer Bob Marshall of The Lens is my boat captain. We've stopped at East Grand Terre. Marshall was here when the oil hit the shore in 2010.
MARSHALL: I'll never forget the day it came in here. It was the peak nesting season in April for brown pelicans.
ELLIOTT: He says the oil rolled in with the tide, waves of reddish-orange gunk.
MARSHALL: And of course, it was hitting these islands, coating the roots of the mangroves, and also the birds were diving. The adults would come back after looking for food and sit down on their eggs, and there was oil on the eggs.
ELLIOTT: This was one of the most heavily oiled areas during the BP oil spill five years ago and today, there's still evidence that oil was here. Hundreds of tar balls dot the beach, and there's even a BP crew cleaning a large tar mat from the surf.
MARSHALL: And this will be going on, unfortunately, for years.
ELLIOTT: Because some of the oil was buried beneath the sand just offshore, and it gets churned up when the surf is rough. Back out on Barataria Bay, Marshall points to where roots jut up in the open water. He says these used to be mangrove islands.
MARSHALL: And the oil coated the roots of those mangrove trees and then they died. And without the mangroves to hold the island together, within three years, most of those islands were gone.
ELLIOTT: Louisiana was already losing land at an alarming rate, but scientists confirm that the oil spill accelerated the pace. Barataria Bay has lost key bird nesting islands, and federal government studies indicate that dolphin here in the bay are sick and dying at a higher rate than normal and show signs of oil poisoning. On our afternoon boat tour, Marshall sees something that worries him.
MARSHALL: There's another dead dolphin. That's the second one we've seen. Honestly, this is strictly anecdotal. You can't tie it to anything. But seriously, I've never seen a single dead dolphin out here. Now I'm seeing two. This is amazing.
ELLIOTT: Five years later, there are more questions than answers about what the lingering impacts mean, says Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.
CYNTHIA SARTHOU: Dolphin deaths continue, oil is still on the bottom of the ocean, tar balls keep coming up, and nobody really is able to say what we might find in five years, 10 years, you know, and it's really distressing to me.
ELLIOTT: Sarthou says there's no certainty this spill won't be a problem for generations to come.
SARTHOU: It's not publicly seen, but it is out there. It's in the marine environment. And so whether we see it or not, the potential impacts of its presence may plague us for decades.
GEOFF MORRELL: There is nothing to suggest other than that the Gulf is a resilient body of water that has bounced back strongly.
ELLIOTT: That's BP Senior Vice President Geoff Morrell.
MORRELL: The Gulf has not been damaged anywhere near the degree that some people had feared it would have in the midst of this spill.
ELLIOTT: Under federal law, BP will have to pay to restore the damage to natural resources caused by its spill, a scientific assessment that is ongoing and could take years to resolve. BP also faces a court judgment that could top $13 billion in an ongoing liability case. A New Orleans federal judge has ruled that BP's gross negligence and willful misconduct are to blame for the disaster. Morrell says BP has already spent $28 billion on response and cleanup and to pay economic claims to oil spill victims. He says the company has changed its safety procedures and pre-deployed capping stacks around the world that could more quickly shut down an out-of-control well.
MORRELL: Obviously, the Deepwater Horizon accident was a tragedy, it was deeply regrettable, and we have done everything possible to learn from it.
ELLIOTT: There's no sign of oil on the breezy public beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., where kids are playing in the surf. Mayor Robert Craft says tourism here is on the rebound.
MAYOR ROBERT CRAFT: There's no question that our economy has done really well. We've recovered people back.
ELLIOTT: The line of colorful umbrellas today along the pristine white sand is a far cry from five years ago.
CRAFT: Five years ago, you'd see oil all over our beach, and you'd see no people here. Our beaches were ruined.
ELLIOTT: Craft says the disaster was a huge blow, both economically and environmentally, and he's not sure it's over.
CRAFT: Economically, we're doing really well, but - and the environment seems to be short-term looking well, too. I mean, we don't have that many tar balls washing up on the shore unless we get really strong, heavy surf, and then we'll get some bust up in here. We know tar mats are out there. But what we don't know is the long-term environmental consequences. It just hasn't been long enough to know.
ELLIOTT: Tourists have flocked back to the beaches of Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida panhandle, helped in part by an ad campaign paid for by BP. Other coastal industries are still trying to come back. In Bon Secour, Ala., fourth-generation oysterman Chris Nelson shows off his family's seafood processing plant, Bon Secour Fisheries.
CHRIS NELSON: We call this our opening house. A lot of people call this a shucking house.
ELLIOTT: About a dozen shuckers are at work at stainless steel tables, slipping a knife into oyster shells to extract the meat. Half the tables here are idle. Sitting on a pier behind the plant, Nelson says there aren't enough oysters.
NELSON: Our business is still struggling here at Bon Secour Fisheries because of the lack of oyster production, and I place the blame for that on the oil spill that's slowly climbing back.
ELLIOTT: Nelson is on the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission. He says one of the most productive public oyster reefs in the country, east of the Mississippi River off the Louisiana coast, is not producing like it should.
NELSON: That was maybe not coincidentally the closest place to where the spill was occurring, where the leak was. That area still has not produced an appreciable number of oysters and has not recruited any young oysters to speak of since the spill.
ELLIOTT: Nelson says it's not clear whether the reef was harmed by exposure to oil or by the fresh water that was released in Louisiana in hopes of pushing it away. Either way, he says, it's a problem that needs resolving.
NELSON: The economy of this region has been damaged tremendously, and BP has done a lot to try to bring us back. But again, the commitment by both the administration and by BP was to get us back better than we were before. I don't think we're better than we were before.
ELLIOTT: Five years later, Nelson says, don't underestimate the lasting toll of the disaster. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Ala.
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.