Seven Years Later: One Girl’s Reflections on the BP Oil Spill
2017, Middle School, Prose
Growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast, my early childhood memories included visiting my grandmother’s house in the steamy summertime on “Little Lagoon.” There were days of building sand castles and countless rounds of Marco Polo—played in the salty bay waves, rather than in the bleachy YMCA pool. There were barbeques and parties—my sixth birthday was a real Hawaiian luau complete with headdresses and homemade leis, a bonfire, and beach games—and walking for hours looking for those perfectly priceless seashells. We stayed at Gulf Shores until the sunset was a medley of blues, pinks, and yellows. A fried chicken and potato salad with just us and a few random seagulls begging for scraps ended the day. Once in a while, we’d go to Sea N’ Suds, a famous stilted restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
In those second-grade days, my idea of pollution was my Girl Scout troop collecting trash on the beaches and bays during the annual Coastal Clean-Up. At seven years old, cans, bottles, cigarette butts, paper, Styrofoam, and household trash were litter. The once-a-year event was our fun competition: Who could get the heaviest bag in the allotted time? Who could find the weirdest item? Some of the trash was illegally dumped; some was flung over the sides of boats; some were the remains of a beachgoer’s picnic; and, some of it was a result of natural disasters such as sewage spills from torrential downpours or hurricanes from the previous years.
But it was always easily contained and neatly collected into the bags that the volunteers gave the group of Brownies. Weighing, sorting, making a note of the garbage I collected, and throwing the plastic bags of litter into the bins—that was the most gratifying moment! We had conquered human pollution for one more year. It would be deposited into the county landfill. I knew that our hard work had made our beaches and state lands clean once again. A sense of satisfaction swept over me, and I put on the free Coastal Clean-Up shirt and went home.
But on April 20, 2010, my perception of pollution, junk, unwanted things, litter, and my Alabama world would change—forever. Far out in the Gulf of Mexico, an explosion would occur that would take the lives of 11 workers. It would be responsible for the largest marine oil spill in United States history. This human and natural disaster would affect my perception of my Gulf Coast and my world, and shape my definition of pollution as I knew it …
My definition of pollution was shattered by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Up until April 10th, I had not even known that giant rig existed; afterward, my family and I researched that once-invisible rig to discover that it was “an ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, semi-submersible, offshore drilling rig” (Deepwater Report). I did not understand those scientific terms. However, I did understand that this “drilling rig” was ruining my Gulf Shores summer.
“We’ll be swimming at the YMCA,” my mother said, matter-of-factly.
She went on to say that human error and failure were to blame. The disaster was “caused by a flawed well plan that did not include enough cement between the seven-inch production casing and the 10-inch protection casing” (theoildrum.org). This “bad cement theory” (which was how I would come to understand it) was not the kind of carelessness that a beachgoer commits—leaving his trash for the Brownies to pick up. Nor was it anything that could be collected into a bag or taken to any landfill.
But I simply could not understand. A broken pipe or a problem with a valve—under the ocean? Why not call a plumbing ship, have them dive down, and just fix it? The words “human failure” echoed over and over. Mom said that our community and environment would pay a steep price. At first, I did not understand this “steep price” but as the summer wore on, my young mind began soaking in the daily horror of the catastrophe.
Black smoke spiraled into the awful blueness of the horizon, and these plumes of smoke graced the newspapers that reported the oil spill across the country. More than 200 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico and for 87 days, the oil kept on gushing, gallon after gallon (Biologicaldiversity). It could not be stopped. Television cameras would show it nightly, a black liquid river, all over the bottom of the ocean.
The media used the word “disaster” in conjunction with the word “spill.” At seven-going-on-eight, I hated this confusion! A spill was accidental and when something spilled, it got cleaned up. (Dad threw a towel over my dinnertime spilled milk all the time.) Deepwater Horizon-released pollutants were not being cleaned up and everybody was just arguing; their accident was human error, and the worst part was that the news was saying that the well had been leaking long before the explosion. They said that the workmanship had been “shoddy.”
I learned what “shoddy” meant, and I learned a lot. On the nightly news, dead fish were washing up of the beaches and the DOUBLE RED FLAG was flying over Gulf Shores which meant, BEACH CLOSED. Five species of protected turtles were threatened: The loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, green turtle, hawksbill, and leatherback turtles (epa.gov). And in less than a month, some of these turtles would be returning to Gulf Shores to lay eggs—it was their critical time—and the clean-up would have to be negotiated so their nests would not be disturbed …
Gulf states from Texas to Florida were “immediately affected both naturally and economically,” and as the summer wore on, the BP Oil Spill affected my understanding of pollution (epa.gov). We abandoned Gulf Shores and stayed near Loxley. I got to know the lifeguards at the YMCA by name; I did not walk on squeaky white sands for a whole year … I made new friends and had sleepovers; my next birthday party, was at Hot Wheels, a local skating rink and not in the white sands. In Loxley, one new animal, a stump-tailed cat named “Stumpie,” adopted my family; in the Gulf of Mexico, meanwhile, volunteers tried to clean up and rescue pelicans, dolphins, turtles, and fish in what was described as “a losing battle.”
One year later, after the flags had changed back to green, my family and I did return to Gulf Shores for wading, swimming, sea-shelling, picnicking, and everything else. After lunch, I went through the contents of my bucket. The curious round and gritty spheres mixed in with the shells were tar balls. Some were the size of a golf balls, and they smelled like a new asphalt road on a hot summer day. The stench lingered on my hands for hours, and later we dumped my bucket into a garbage can as we headed to the car. It was weeks before we returned …
I remember thinking, how could Gulf Shores still be polluted? The hazmat gear guys had been up and down the beach with their equipment, hundreds of times, but the pollution, my mother told me, was completely opposite of the annual Coastal Clean-Up. Our volunteers arrived and conquered; the BP pollution, however, was hiding and it was everywhere. It was in Texas and on the rocks of Dauphin Island, Alabama; it was in the Louisiana marshlands and in the bodies of bluefin tuna; it was even in the eggs of the brown pelicans and of course, in the gross tar balls that I would be finding … for many more years.
Crabs and fish washed up on the beaches of the five states involved; over 80,000 birds and 6,000 sea turtles were killed or injured (epa.gov). Stillborn dolphins and dead infant dolphins washed up on beaches. Things were clearest when I visited Sea ‘N Suds one week and then The Shrimp Basket a few weeks later. Both menu inserts reminded diners that “We serve farm-raised catfish only” and “Fresh Vietnamese shrimp are proudly served” …
When I have children, they, too, will be subject to the effects of the oil spill: This is what I now understand about pollution. What happens in one place at one time can go everywhere. It does not just go away. Human polluting and littering is an ugly legacy that goes beyond being shocked by statistics or feeling good about filling up waste receptacles. It is about rocks that look like rocks, pure white beach sands, pelicans gliding in the air, and dolphins racing in front of the boat in the open water. It is about ensuring the survival of all of this because people cannot live without these simple gifts from God.
Seven years later, I also understand that there will still be those steamy summer days of fun and fishing, swimming, and boating on “Little Lagoon” or jumping over waves at the Gulf. Sand castles and Marco Polo and wading out far into the water, barbeques and parties … I will give my daughter a Hawaiian-themed birthday party, and we will walk for hours along the shore. But oh, what we will talk about.
When bad things happen such as the unending hardships brought on by the oil spill, people get stronger. As was the case after 9/11, Americans come together. Communities in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Mississippi did not lose hope. Instead, people worked together to save wildlife and our means of life. They say that most of the oil was removed from the Gulf of Mexico but some oil remains in the depths of our pristine waters. I know it is there. Hopefully, God will take care of that. Hopefully, corporations have learned from this disaster and will think twice before risking the lives of people and wildlife.
This incident will never fade from my memory, and we will band together if anything like it ever occurs again. The dangers of pollution impact all life from shrimp to dolphins, from coral to humans. As people who live on the Earth, we must remember that whatever we do can affect the rest of the planet, a planet that is much smaller than we realize …
Biologicaldiversity.org. “A Deadly Toll: The Gulf Oil Spill and the Unfolding Wildlife Disaster.” April 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2017. Web.
“Deepwater Horizon Marine Casualty Investigation Report.” Office of the Maritime Administrator. 17 August 2011. Retrieved 15 June 2017. Web.
The Oil Drum: Discussions About Energy and Our Future. “BP’s Deepwater Oil Spill – Still
Important Things to Discuss. Forum. 2 October 2010. 431 comments. Retrieved 10 June 2017. Web.
White, H., R. Conmy, I. MacDonald, AND C. Reddy. “Methods of Oil Detection in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.” OCEANOGRAPHY. Oceanography Society, Rockville, MD, 29(3):76-87, (2016). Epa.gov. Retrieved 10 June 2017. Web.
The BP oil spill really impacted my childhood. It helped me understand the effects pollution can have on communities and wildlife. It made me realize how my actions affect the world. A simple thing like cleaning up after myself can help save animals that can’t save themselves. I now realize how much of an ability I have to make a difference—whether it is monitoring sea turtle nests in order to help hatchlings make it to the Gulf, or simply taking the time to pick up trash and put it in its proper place. The BP oil spill taught me that the fight against pollution is an ongoing effort but one that must never be ignored.