Sixty-six days after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana and catalyzed the worst oil spill in U.S. history (one that also killed eleven workers and injured seven others), Americans stare shame-faced at the black shadow in the Gulf of Mexico. It's huge. At nearly 300 miles wide and 200 miles long, the estimated 110.7 million gallons of crude oil that escaped the Deepwater Horizon's pipes a mile below sea level have surfaced on beaches as far west as Raccoon Island, Louisiana and as far east as Panama City, Florida. Unfortunately, tar balls aren't the only tragic mutations arriving on Gulf beaches. "When we found this dolphin it was filled with oil," a former BP contract worker told NY Daily. "Oil was just pouring out of it. It was the saddest darn thing to look at."
Strategies implemented to cleanup the mess have proven equally disheartening. Ranging from the counterintuitive (releasing toxic dispersants) to the extravagant (employing diamond wire cutters) to the absurd (covering it with paper towels), BP has finally begun to make some progress. BP reported on Tuesday that its containment cap, which had to be repaired after a malfunction yesterday, has recovered 27,090 barrels of oil, but even at that, some project that the spill is unlikely to be contained until BP completes the construction of two relief wells...in August.
Unthinkable damages and dismal scientific projections will continue to surge until then.
"Those figures have become abstract," writes Surfrider Foundation CEO Jim Moriarty. "We don't even know what they mean anymore. For the last two months all we've seen is oil spilling, environments being damaged, local economies cliffing, fisheries becoming toxic...the damage is hard to fathom."
Mark Windham, a 45-year-old surfer who lives near New Orleans, paints a clearer picture of what this disaster actually feels like for Louisiana residents and the local surf community.
"I was on vacation last week at the panhandle of Florida and I heard reports that surfers were coming out of the water with skin irritations and chemical burns and skin rashes," says Windham. "It's almost like you're taking a big chance by getting in the water even if you don't see oil in the water."
"I really don't know if in my lifetime I'll ever be able to surf a Gulf Coast beach ever again," says Windham. "It's a pretty sad situation over here."
Like many residents, Windham wants to be a part of the solution, which isn't quite as simple as walking to the beach with a garbage bag. BP requires all volunteers to complete training programs and use special safety equipment before participating in the relief effort. "As much as I'd like to get down there and fill up a bag with oil or oily trash, it's almost too toxic to even get down there and attempt," says Windham. "Unless you're in a HAZMAT suit with protective gear on I wouldn't even get close to it."
Randy Coffman, 52, who has been a local at Louisiana's Fourchon Beach for 37 years, shares Windham's frustration.
"Fourchon Beach is where I surf...or should I say used to surf," says Coffman. "It might not be the greatest, but we do get some really awesome days. Sometimes you might be by yourself or maybe with four or five of your best bros. Now it all seems lost. Our beach is covered with oil, and with so much of it out there it's far from being over. Our fishing industry is screwed. Something needs to be done and real soon. In the meantime, what am I supposed to do? Maybe I'll move to California or at least visit some friends who live there."
"Quite often we take a lot of things for granted instead of being grateful," says Coffman. "So the next time you go surfing, think of us on the Gulf Coast. Smile at the people around you, and share some waves. Who knows? That guy you just shared a wave with might just might be a Gulf Coaster who's thankful to enjoy the ocean again."
This article was originally published on SurferMag.com on June 24, 2010.