Revisiting Gulf Islands National Seashore two years after the biggest offshore oil disaster ever.
Dennis Gerfen moved from California to Pensacola, Florida, 11 years ago. The retired Navy electronics technician walks the almost snow-white sand beaches of nearby Perdido Key two or three times a week. But he stopped in April 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico—oil that would eventually reach Perdido and the 106 miles of Mississippi and Florida beaches in the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
From April to July of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil well, operated by BP, spewed more than 170 million gallons of oil into Gulf waters. The disaster played out just 70 miles south of some Gulf Islands beaches, and no sector of the park would be spared by the oil’s eventual spread.
Cleanup in the Gulf has proved to be a massive endeavor that forced the National Park Service to make some unprecedented decisions about just how far it would go to remove oil from the seashore. Today, as BP and the federal government work to settle spill lawsuits and set the retribution levels that will shape the future for Gulf Islands and the broader coast, the agency is focused on what’s next.
As unpleasant as the scene may have been to Gerfen, it was nothing compared with what some expected. Many feared a repeat of the Exxon Valdez spill that coated whole beaches in black. “I think everybody had that image in mind,” says Rick Clark, chief of science and resource management at Gulf Islands National Seashore, headquartered in Gulf Breeze, Florida. “That was our worst fear.”
Instead, at Gulf Islands there were patties of oil (some the size of dinner plates), the occasional larger pool, and ropes of oil that coated high-tide lines, but they were slow in coming. The Park Service expected the oil to arrive quickly, as did the tourists who stopped coming to most Gulf beaches well before the oil arrived. “We had no clue what was coming,” says Nina Kelson, deputy superintendent at Gulf Islands.
Nobody did. So the Gulf Islands staff talked preparations with those in other areas such as Everglades National Park at the southern tip of Florida and Canaveral National Seashore up the state’s east coast. Early on it seemed plausible that currents would carry the oil in that direction, though ultimately those areas were spared.
At Gulf Islands, the Park Service conducted photo surveys at points on the beaches to create a record of conditions before the spill, but for the most part, it was a tense waiting game. The wellhead’s location a mile deep and its distance from shore combined with fickle winds and currents to slow the oil’s movement toward land, and the oil was much patchier than the blanket of Valdez oil in Alaska’s relatively confined Prince William Sound. Cleanup crews used dispersants in an effort to break up the massive quantities of oil on the seafloor and on the surface, which, by most accounts, dramatically reduced the amount of oil that would reach shore—although many experts wondered if the use of those dispersants merely masked the problem or exacerbated it by pouring more chemicals into the Gulf.
In June of 2010 the oil started making landfall throughout Gulf Islands. Some made it through inlets to the marshier backsides of the various islands, but most showed up on the beaches.
That left the Park Service with some difficult decisions. The Gulf Islands beaches are havens for both humans and wildlife, so crowds of hundreds of cleanup workers would be a poor fit, but so would the oil. As the patties and puddles of goo accumulated, park officials saw no choice but to authorize cleanup crews that would be supervised by special Resource Advisors, or READs.
As part of the response system, employees from the Park Service and other federal agencies came from around the country to act as READs. A biologist from Hawaii might join a park ranger from Texas and a Kentucky forestry technician to patrol a Mississippi beach to make sure that cleanup workers were aware of treatment recommendations and followed protocol, steering clear of areas of special concern such as sensitive vegetation or shorebird nesting sites.
There was too much oil to clean up by hand, so the next step was to bring in mechanized sifters dragged behind tractors that could collect the oil. In Florida, the Gulf Islands beaches are accessible by road, but in Mississippi, getting people and equipment where they needed to be was substantially more complex.
Horn, Petit Bois (pronounced “petty boy”), East Ship, and West Ship Islands form the bulk of Mississippi’s true southern border on the Gulf. All four, as well as part of Cat Island, are part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, but at more than 10 miles offshore, they’re difficult to reach or even see from the mainland. These islands were as heavily oiled as any region of the Gulf, but their remote location meant they got less national attention than some of the more visible beaches.
A ferry runs to West Ship during warmer months, and the site has a Civil War-era fort as well as bathrooms and a snack bar. But Horn and Petit Bois are both congressionally designated wilderness areas, which means they must be managed to “leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.” As a result, standing on Horn’s 14-mile undulating beach line, a visitor can’t see any sign of human construction, and quite often not so much as a footprint.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 specifically forbids any motor vehicles—such as big tractors pulling sand sifters—but by the fall of 2010, at Horn there were barges beached at one end of the island, dozens of utility vehicles and tractor-sifter rigs, and hundreds of workers. This was all sanctioned based on a detailed analysis of the Park Service management policies.
Ranger Ben Moore has lived on Horn most of the time since 1992, except for the few years it took the Park Service to build a small ranger apartment and office building to replace the one that Hurricane Katrina swept away. Though an ardent advocate of the wilderness concept, he supported the decision of Park Service leaders to take drastic steps to clean the oil.
“We [had] to pay that consequence to get back to where we need to be,” Moore told me during an interview back in 2010. “Not everybody will understand what a big step it was for the Park Service to allow mechanized equipment on congressionally designated wilderness islands. But that tells you more than anything how big a disaster this was.”
By that time, crews had already made major progress. Where the sifters had run, there were only tiny specks of tar balls left behind. Workers came through to pick these up using wire baskets on poles, while their counterparts followed similar procedures at the Florida Gulf Islands beaches.
Despite the oil, the Park Service never closed any beaches other than to keep visitors away from active cleanup crews, though rangers did temporarily discourage swimming in accordance with state and federal precautions. Even so, negative media reports kept most people away.
On the 2010 July 4 weekend, a time when about 500 boats would typically make the run to Horn, Moore counted just 13. “It was eerily quiet,” he says. Aerial photos of Pensacola beaches during that time show a similarly striking emptiness.
During the fall of 2010 and early winter 2011, Park Service leaders had to make another trade-off. Though plenty of oil remained, they opted to suspend cleanup operations throughout Gulf Islands during the critical shorebird nesting season, from March to August.
Bird impacts remain a key concern at Gulf Islands. Hundreds if not thousands of least terns and black skimmers abandoned their colonial nesting grounds on the park’s beaches, most likely due to the disturbance from cleanup work. It’s not clear how many shorebirds ended up nesting in different areas.
Most of the dead or ailing birds that workers found on the Mississippi islands were migrating northern gannets, beautiful white-and-black seabirds with a wingspan that can stretch nearly six feet. Workers also found dead dolphins and other animals, but those findings aren’t unusual, so it’s difficult to say how and whether they were tied to the oil or dispersants; research to answer that question is ongoing.
Four different sea turtle species also nest on both the Florida and Mississippi sides of Gulf Islands. The adults don’t feed when coming onto shore to lay their eggs, but toxins in the oil threatened the hatchlings, so, during the 2010 nesting season, the Park Service worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to move the eggs from some nests to a Florida Atlantic Coast beach outside the oil’s reach.
Clean-up crews directed by the U.S. coast guard will continue cleaning the beaches in cooperation with the Park Service until the job is deemed complete, technically when there is less than 1 percent of oil coverage on most beaches and no visible oil on the more heavily used recreational beaches. But for now, all work is being done by hand because the oil is scattered in most areas, though some of the Mississippi islands still have much more visible concentrations of tar balls.
Local hotels say their reservations aren’t quite back to pre-spill levels, but they’re getting close; Kelson says that park visitor numbers are higher than they have been since before the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
But even some two years out, by the time crews finish cleaning an area, they have to start over again picking up new tar balls. “We’ll be involved in cleanup of those areas for as long as it takes,” says Clark. Because beaches such as those at East Ship and Horn are more difficult to reach and clean, they have more accumulated oil yet to be picked up.
Some of the oil on beaches is buried in sand, making it difficult to clean without disrupting beach organisms until the sand is re-exposed by wind and waves. This is one of the greatest challenges in the continuing cleanup effort. There are also strong signs that some oil remains submerged offshore, though to date no one has conducted a systematic search inside or outside the national seashore.
“If you look at the volume of oil expelled from that well, a lot of it still remains unaccounted for,” says Clark. “There are still many theories as to what happened, where it’s circulating, and where it sank, but nobody knows with any degree of certainty.”
In April and May of this year a team of divers with the Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center in Lakewood, Colorado, will be looking for tar mats. It’s not clear whether BP will fund the work, as the Park Service has requested. Other goals include monitoring potential impacts to beach life that gets less attention, such as ghost and hermit crabs.
The greatest concern is identifying and reducing the spill’s long-term effects. Funds for cleanup activities are legally ensured, but how much money will go to monitoring and restoration efforts remains an open legal question.
BP will likely pay a huge retribution for direct environmental damages to the Gulf and communities along the shoreline. The company has promised $1 billion as an advance on the money it will ultimately owe out of the damage-assessment process (funds to settle personal claims from commercial fishermen and others are handled separately). BP has also agreed to dedicate $500 million to Gulf research. “There’s a long list of potential restoration projects,” says Mark Ford, a wetlands ecologist with the Park Service and a representative on the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which is working to establish a long-term plan. “We have to sort through what is best and what can be funded,” he says. “We have a ways to go, and when it comes to implementation, that’s going to take years.”
BP also will have to pay fines for the oil spilled. This money could simply go into government coffers, but legislators are working to pass the RESTORE Act, which would guarantee that a substantial portion goes to the Gulf—an effort that NPCA strongly supports, as Gulf Islands, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (Louisiana), and Padre Island National Seashore (Texas) could all benefit.
John Adornato, director of NPCA’s Sun Coast Regional Office, says that as funds come through, one of the most critical concerns will be proper management, because it’s not yet clear whether the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force will remain in place to oversee efforts for the long term. “Once the lawsuits are resolved and the impact fees identified, then there needs to be a sequential and structured means of ensuring that the best and most appropriate restoration projects move forward.” NPCA is also advocating that new areas of the Gulf coast be protected from development and oil drilling.
Although the Gulf Coast wasn’t hit as hard as some feared, there is still much to do. To Moore at Horn Island, those who have declared the spill’s damages erased or concluded are a bit short-sighted. “The damages were not as dramatic as expected. The disaster didn’t photograph as well as CNN would have liked,” he says. “It’s a creeping impact. But the oil is definitely going to be with us for a while.”
That said, visitors to Gulf Islands’ most popular beaches aren’t likely to find many signs of the spill unless they’re looking closely. On a recent weekday at Perdido Key, Gerfen is glad to be back to his regular routine, and he didn’t see any tar balls. There is work still to be done, and there are open questions regarding long-term impacts, but among Park Service staff, there is also cautious optimism—and more than a little thankfulness that their Exxon Valdez-inspired worst nightmares haven’t played out.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
State of Mississippi moving to drill for natural gas below Gulf Islands When Congress established Gulf Islands National Seashore in 1971, the state of Mississippi agreed to hand over several plots of land with the condition that the mineral rights remain with the state—meaning Mississippi officials could allow a company to drill for oil and gas that lay below the park’s surface, a practice that unfolds at Padre Island National Seashore, for example. But for 40 years, the land at Gulf Islands remained untouched. Last December, as his term was coming to an end, Governor Haley Barbour proposed regulations that would allow the state to lease lands for seismic testing and drilling for natural gas. Horn Island and Petit Bois Island are both designated wilderness areas, which means drilling equipment is forbidden, but directional drilling initiated from an adjacent site is perfectly legal. If oil or gas extraction moves forward, rigs as high as 6 stories could be built one mile off the park’s coast, making them visible to most of the 1 million visitors who come to the islands every year (another 4 million visit the Florida side of the park). The park’s superintendent, Dan Brown, is also concerned about potential toxins in the water, light pollution, noise pollution, and air pollution, all of which would have an impact on endangered species like sea turtles, Gulf sturgeon, and piping plovers.
As Mississippi moved ahead in the scoping process, the state’s mineral leasing office failed to notify the park of an imminent public-comment period, inexplicably confusing the Park Service with the Fish and Wildlife Service; the park’s pleas to extend the comment period for that very reason were ignored.
“Our concern is that there is no way the drill rigs could be positioned without being visible from the park,” says Brown. “Visitors on the south side of Horn and Petit Bois Islands have a true wilderness experience—all they can see is open water and the occasional passing ship, and we’d like to retain that experience.
“The state has a real gem off its coast—a national park just like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. We want state officials to preserve the qualities and the character that Congress intended when it created this national seashore.”
To get involved, visit healthygulf.org.
About the author
Mark Schrope is a freelance writer living in Florida, where he is finishing a book about the science and environmental impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. His work appears in publications such as Nature and The Washington Post.