Blog Post Edward Stierli Apr 19, 2013

'How Did They Let This Happen?'

On the three-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill, I hope my students remember the advice I gave them.

Many of us remember the images from the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that left 11 people dead. The disaster opened a gushing wellhead that emptied 5,000 barrels of oil per day into the ocean off the coast of Louisiana. I worked as a teacher in Louisiana as these events unfolded, and for me, what happened eight days later was as poignant as the news on that first terrible night because it happened in my classroom.

On April 28, 2010, the world watched as clean-up crews set the Gulf of Mexico’s waters ablaze—the latest attempt to control the vast oil slick. The disaster became the topic for discussion among my 7th grade students in Jefferson Parish, less than 100 miles from the smoldering oil rig. The local news had just reported that oil would be washing ashore within hours.

My students were scared. They sought assurance and answers. They wanted to know why it was happening. The BP oil spill was more than an ecological disaster happening offshore; the impacts were real and they were quickly hitting home.

One student heard from his father, a commercial fisherman, that “all of the oysters and fish were going to die and there was going to be no more seafood.”

As students pictured the oil washing ashore and destroying beaches, many feared that their parents would lose their jobs in the tourism-based economy that the Gulf Coast relied upon. They talked about the places they had visited and loved—Jean Lafitte down the road, the beaches of Alabama and Gulf Islands. “Will we be able to go this summer?”

They turned to me and asked, “How did they let this happen?”

Being an English teacher, this would have been a great opportunity for me to invoke the lessons of The Lorax and provide a literary analogy. But I just told them to hold on to how they felt in that moment and not forget it.

This was just the beginning of a nightmare that went on to last 87 days. Over 210 million gallons of oil later, gulf ecosystems have been permanently changed. As we mark the three-year anniversary, the restoration continues. We still do not know the long-term consequences of the BP oil spill and how it will affect the landscape and aquatic life for years to come. A recent National Wildlife Federation report (PDF) states the remnants of oil and dispersants continue to plague dolphins, sea turtles, and coral, which are dying at an abnormally high rate.

Three years later, more oil rigs are drilling in the Gulf of Mexico than before the BP oil spill. In the past year, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has issued 112 new drilling permits for wells deeper than 500 feet—more than each of the two years prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Have we forgotten the lesson from three years ago? I at least hope that my students have not.

BP and other responsible parties are currently on trial in a federal court in Louisiana to determine the extent of their negligence. Learn how financial penalties from the proceedings could help fund projects to strengthen Gulf waters and national parks in our recent story, “Three Years Later: Gulf Coast Still Recovering from BP Oil Spill.”

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