Oil spill marks decade anniversary

By GUY BUSBY
Posted 4/24/20

ORANGE BEACH – A decade after the first oil washed up on Gulf Coast sands, Baldwin County beaches are again quiet as residents and officials deal with another emergency.

Orange Beach …

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Oil spill marks decade anniversary

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ORANGE BEACH – A decade after the first oil washed up on Gulf Coast sands, Baldwin County beaches are again quiet as residents and officials deal with another emergency.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the closing of the beaches and stay-at-home orders intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 have slowed the economy again.

“I looked out on the beach today and it looks like just after the spill started,” Kennon said. “In a way, it might be even more. During the spill, we had a 40 percent occupancy rate and people could still go out. Now it’s 20 percent and nobody can go anywhere.”

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 120 miles southwest of Mobile Bay. The rig, leased to BP, dumped more than 130 million gallons of oil, 3.19 million barrels, into the Gulf of Mexico. Other estimates put the total amount spilled as high as more than 210 million gallons – 4.9 million barrels.

On May 9, tar balls, lumps of congealed oil, were washing up on Dauphin Island. On June 1, the day after the Memorial Day liquid oil was reported on Alabama beaches.

Herb Malone, director of Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism, said residents didn’t know what to expect and the predictions were not good.

“The traumatic part of it was that we as locals, in a lot of cases had enough uncertainty to know that we would never have the same way of life,” Malone said. “There were some news reports coming out that led you to believe, some actually stated it, quoting some expert from somewhere else, I don’t recall where, that the Gulf is going to be dead for decades. There will be no fish, no shrimp, no oysters, nothing. You take that away, you take the livelihood, not just the livelihood you take the love we all have in our hearts for the beaches and the fishing and all that. So that had us all on pins and needles.”

Experts who’d studied the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska warned that the effects would not just be environmental or economic, Malone said.

“When they talked to us in a group, they talked about the physical part of it, but they spent more time talking about the human part of it and they said that as it went on, they had a worse situation than we did, I acknowledge that, they shared with us, that all the human ills went up dramatically, divorces, alcoholism, suicides, all these things that you’ve really got to watch out for,” he said. “We had to take care of ourselves, kind of down the list and after that, episode of the conversation, we started moving it up the list and then, unfortunately, one of our local charter boat captains, committed suicide and it moved to the top of the list.”

Kennon said the area recovered, but residents should not forget that lives were lost in the spill.

“We had such a good recovery since then, we need to remember what happened,” Kennon said. “We need to remember that people lost their lives. People lost their lives in the explosion and we also had one of our own charter boat captains die when he took his own life.”

The environmental effects have also been debated for a decade.

George Crozier, retired director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said no one at the time knew what the effects might be from that much oil pumping into the Gulf from a depth of 5,000 feet.

“There had been spills before, I don’t think there had been anything that deep,” Crozier said. “We hadn’t experienced anything like this before. Some people were going on like it was the end of the world, but in reality, nobody really knew what to expect.”

Crozier said that while oil washed up on Alabama beaches, the currents in the Gulf protected Alabama from the worst of the effects. Currents flow primarily from east to west and the output of Mobile Bay also pushes water into the Gulf, away from the local coastline.

He said experts do not agree on the long-term effects of the spill on the environment. He said his personal feeling is that seafood has recovered well. Some larger fish do have traces of oil in their livers, but the meat that is consumed has little trace of effect from the spill.

At the time, the spill did have an environmental impact on the Alabama coast. Between May 22 and Sept. 30, 272 cases of oil exposure were reported, according to Alabama Department of Public Health reports. Dolphin deaths on the Gulf Coast increased from an average of 65 a year before the spill to 125 in 2010 and 335 in 2011.

As part of the legal settlement from the oil spill, BP paid for promotional advertising for the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Kennon said one benefit from that aspect of the crisis was that more people became aware of the region.

“The oil spill opened us up to the world,” Kennon said. “All of the sudden, people realized that Alabama has, in my opinion, the most beautiful beaches in the world.”