2010-2019 | Environmental devastation | United States

BP oil rig explodes causing the biggest ever maritime oil spill

Fire boats attempt to quell the flames on the Deep Water Horizon oil rig-
US Coast Guard – public domain – via Wikimedia.

20 April 2010

On 20 April 2010, a huge explosion at British Petroleum’s Deep Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico became the latest in a series of disasters due to the company’s reckless prioritisation of profits over safety.  The blast, kindled by the escape of high pressure methane gas, ripped through the rig, killing eleven crew and causing an oil leak which the U.S. government later estimated at 4.9 million barrels, affecting 68,000 square miles of ocean and 1,300 miles of coastline, and earning the incident the ignominious record of the world’s largest ever accidental oil spill.1

Hundreds of thousands of sea birds and an unknown quantity of fish and other sea life perished from the pollution. Fishermen and workers involved in the clean up are also thought to have been exposed to dangerous chemicals. These included benzene in the original spill and a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals in the dispersant, Corexit, employed by BP to break up the oil slicks into tiny droplets, but in so doing increasing its toxicity.  Inevitably, people living along the nearby coast of Louisiana soon began to complain of conditions they attributed to the spill, ranging from headaches and respiratory infections through to breast cancer.2

BP tried to direct all the blame at two supervisors on the rig, Bob Kaluza and Don Vidrine, as convenient scapegoats, who they hoped would take the heat away from the investigation into the company’s own practices, but the strategy failed to prevent the U.S. Chemical Safety Board singling out BP’s cost-cutting culture which had compromised maintenance and safety procedures.

At the time of the accident, the oil drilling project was six weeks behind schedule and $58 million over budget. The entire crew were under enormous pressure to deliver quick results. Despite this, the U.S. Department of Justice, encouraged by BP, attempted to pin the blame on the two rig supervisors. It failed.  Apart from Vidrine giving in to pressure to accept a minor misdemeanour offence, both men were cleared of all charges and even in Vidrine’s case it was acknowledged that he had been merely following the procedures given to him by BP’s officials. This legal fiasco, in the words of  Professor David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan , was due to the error of targeting ‘individuals who were too far down the corporate hierarchy… in a case that involved a corporate culture run amok.’3

FOOTNOTES

  1. Oliver Milman, ‘Deepwater horizon disaster altered building blocks of ocean life,’ The Guardian28 June 2018 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/28/bp-deepwater-horizon-oil-spill-report and Peter Moscowitz, ‘Lousiana five years after BP oil spill: “It’s not going back to normal no time soon.”‘  The Guardian, 18 April 2015 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/18/lousiana-bp-oil-spill-five-years-not-going-back-to-normal
  2. Peter Moscowitz, ‘Lousiana five years after BP oil spill: “It’s not going back to normal no time soon.”‘  The Guardian, 18 April 2015 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/18/lousiana-bp-oil-spill-five-years-not-going-back-to-normal and ‘The Gulf Oil Spill’, The Smithsonian, accessed online at url https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/pollution/gulf-oil-spill
  3. David Uhlmann cited in Loren Steffy, ‘Blowout,’ Texas Monthly October 2016 accessed online at url https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/deepwater-horizon-prosecution/

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