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Restoring a Ravaged Coast

A decade after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, settlement funds from the disaster are flowing into projects to revive the Gulf Coast’s degraded habitats.

  • Mark Wexler
  • Conservation
  • Feb 01, 2020

Brown pelicans nest on Cat Island off the coast of Louisiana. Devastated by the 2010 oil spill, which killed both birds and mangroves and accelerated erosion, the island is now completely underwater. (Photo by Tyrone Turner)

LIKE MUCH OF THE LOUISIANA COASTLINE, the state’s Caminada Headland had been hemorrhaging land into the sea for more than 100 years, suffering one of the highest rates of land loss in the United States. A crucial first line of defense against storms and rising sea levels, the narrow sandy barrier lost an average of 35 feet annually to the surging Gulf of Mexico. Encroaching saltwater also penetrated interior marshes, damaging acres of freshwater wetlands. Then, three years ago, Caminada’s condition changed dramatically following the completion of a $216 million project that pumped new life into this battered headland—one of the most ambitious coastal restoration efforts ever undertaken in the state.

After moving more than 10 million tons of sand from offshore shoals to the peninsula, state engineers restored more than 13 miles of uninhabited beaches, building them up nearly 5 feet above sea level. To prevent erosion, they put in 195,000 native plants such as sea oats and bitter panicum and installed 72,000 feet of fencing. In the process, they enhanced 800 acres of vital habitat for threatened piping plovers, nesting least terns and other species. “The shorebirds didn’t waste time taking advantage of the new habitat,” says David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Restoration Program. “Unfortunately, it took a catastrophe to get the funding that paid for it.” 

A ship drifts amidst a heavy band of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead
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A month after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, a ship passes through oil (above) still gushing from the damaged wellhead. On the state’s Grand Terre Island, a brown pelican (below) flounders in oil, just one of hundreds of thousands of birds killed or injured in the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Historic Gulf oil spill

A catastrophe indeed. Caminada Headland is the largest project completed to date using money from the $16.5 billion damage settlement between British Petroleum (BP), its drilling partners and the U.S. government as a result of the 2010 Gulf oil spill. The disaster began on April 20, when a drilling rig dubbed Deepwater Horizon exploded 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, setting in motion the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Soon after the rig erupted in flames, 11 men lost their lives. For the following 87 days, the wellhead nearly 5,000 feet below the surface gushed more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into surrounding waters, polluting 1,300 miles of shoreline from Florida to Texas. Scientists later determined that as many as 10 million gallons of oil accumulated in sediment on the ocean floor, creating a contaminated area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

To break up the pollutant, crews from BP and its drilling partners injected nearly 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the damaged wellhead and also sprayed the chemicals onto the sea surface. A University of Miami-led study concluded, however, that the dispersants failed to stop the oil’s spread and may actually have increased its ecological damage. “As the toxicity of oil often increases when mixed with dispersants, it is likely that use of the chemicals exacerbated the disaster’s effects on fish and wildlife,” observed NWF scientists in a subsequent report examining the spill’s impacts.

Globs of oil hang from the beak of heavily oiled pelican

The report also stated that the oil killed between 2 and 5 trillion larval fish, more than 8 billion oysters and as many as 20 percent of endangered adult female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. An estimated 800,000 coastal birds ultimately perished as a result of the spill. In Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, for example, oil destroyed most of the mangroves in once-flourishing brown pelican rookeries and left the birds choking in petroleum. Many dolphins that initially survived later “suffered lung defects and hormone abnormalities,” according to NOAA Fisheries scientists. Hundreds of these marine mammals later died in what NOAA has called “the largest and longest-lasting dolphin die-off on record in the Gulf of Mexico.” 

Along with several of his NWF colleagues, retired Federation Senior Scientist Doug Inkley was on the scene almost from the beginning of the disaster, taking journalists from national and local publications and television networks in boats to areas where oil was washing into coastal wetlands and bird colonies on islands—some 40 miles from the source of the spill. “We realized that the media wasn’t getting a true picture of what was really happening in the Gulf,” he says. “The first time we took a group out, we were all amazed by the enormity of the disaster.” The water was black in every direction, Inkley recalls, and it “reeked from the smell of petroleum.” In one area, the foul odor was so overpowering that the group had to wear protective gear to avoid breathing in dangerous fumes as they continued to photograph and film the spreading contamination. 

Through the images made on those trips and subsequent actions, “we were able to show the media and the public that the oil wasn’t as contained as BP claimed at the time,” says Amanda Moore, deputy director of NWF’s Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program. Federation staff also organized meetings where experts and journalists connected with concerned coastal residents. “Many people had lost their livelihoods and were terrified,” Moore says.

Scientists trying to determine the spill’s impact on some 15,000 wildlife species that inhabit the Gulf have been hindered by a lack of baseline information about their distributions. Still, a handful of recent studies confirms that some wildlife species continue to suffer from habitat degradation and other lingering effects of the toxic tragedy.“

Providing seamless data for the Gulf as a whole is imperative if we are to prepare adequately for future spills,” says University of South Florida marine ecologist Steve Murawski, who led a team of researchers on a seven-year study that provides the first-ever comprehensive assessment of ocean life in the region. Released in 2018, the study’s results are based on 12 separate expeditions during which scientists tested about 15,000 fish belonging to 166 species in 343 locations.

Among their findings, the scientists reported that the region of the Gulf with the lowest diversity of fish species is the same area with the greatest number of offshore drilling rigs. The researchers also found that none of the areas they assessed was free of oil, though they did discover that levels of oil contamination in many of the fish living in the northern Gulf continue to decline. 

In another investigation, biologists at Florida Atlantic University examined how crude oil affects the physiology of marine animals. As a test case, the scientists studied Atlantic stingrays, which rely on their well-developed sensory systems to detect predators and mates in the Gulf. The researchers concluded last year that contact with oil significantly impairs a ray’s sense of smell and its ability to detect electric fields within just two days of exposure. “Even if the oil does not cause immediate or direct death, its sublethal effects could still reduce fitness or contribute to premature death,” says Stephen Kajiura, the study’s lead scientist.

Such findings worry conservationists, especially today as the Trump administration boosts offshore drilling while weakening safety regulations. Already, thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines and some 3,500 active and inactive drilling rigs line Gulf Coast waters between Texas and Alabama. One site, 12 miles from Louisiana’s shores, has leaked millions of gallons of crude oil since 2004, when Hurricane Ivan sunk the Taylor Energy platform. “There were oil spills in the Gulf before, during and after the BP spill,” says Amanda Fuller, deputy director of NWF’s Gulf Restoration Program. “We should be implementing strong safety measures instead of rolling them back.”

Read the Caption
Map of Deepwater Horizon spill

During the 2010 spill, the oily reach of gushing crude (in orange) extended across 1,300 miles of Gulf coast, fouling waters and shorelines that still suffer ill effects today. Fortunately, scores of restoration projects—such as the examples shown here—are offering new hope for the region’s recovery. Read more about these projects here.

Coastal habitats disappear

Though Louisiana bore the brunt of the oil spill, its coastal problems began long before the 2010 disaster. During the past 80 years, the state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal land and marshes to erosion. Much of the loss can be attributed to successful efforts to rein in the mighty Mississippi River. Modern levees (built to protect populated areas from flooding) and navigation channels (built to connect America’s breadbasket to a hungry world) together have blocked the flow of fresh water and land-building sediment that for millennia had poured into the Louisiana coast from the river. Combined with increased saltwater intrusion, largely caused by canal dredging by the oil and gas industry, the levees and channels profoundly altered natural hydrology in the Mississippi River Delta, damaging crucial fish and wildlife habitat. In many areas, the oil spill exacerbated this problem. In heavily oiled coastal areas, “there was a significantly higher rate of erosion and land loss,” says NWF Coastal Scientist Alisha Renfro.

Paradoxically, the spill also has spawned a historic endeavor to revive the planet’s seventh-largest river delta—the most ambitious restoration effort the nation has ever attempted. Key to this undertaking was passage of the NWF-supported federal RESTORE Act. Signed into law in 2012, the measure mandates that 80 percent of the civil penalties resulting from the oil disaster be spent in the affected states for environmental and economic recovery. In hard-hit Louisiana, all of these funds are going to coastal restoration projects. “

If there was one thing good that came out of the disaster, it was Louisiana’s decision to use its BP penalty funds on restoring and protecting coastal areas,” says Rebecca Triche, executive director of NWF affiliate Louisiana Wildlife Federation. “It was an indication to people everywhere that this state is serious about repairing its damaged coastline.” 

Oil spill workers plant sea grass
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Off the coast of Mississippi, members of The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf Corps plant sea oats (above) on Round Island to help protect the mainland from storms and attract wildlife such as nesting least terns (below). The project is funded through the federal RESTORE Act, which mandates that 80 percent of civil penalties resulting from the 2010 oil spill be spent on environmental and economic recovery across the Gulf Coast region.

Mimicking natural processes 

During the past five years, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) has completed five restoration projects using oil-spill settlement funds, with two more under construction. NWF and its partners are encouraging CPRA to develop plans utilizing natural solutions. “We want to mimic the processes that originally created the delta’s diverse habitats,” Renfro explains.

One major project nearing construction—the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion on the western bank of the Mississippi—will use the power of the river itself to move its sediment through a series of gates in the levee system, eventually replenishing thousands of acres of coastal land and marshes. “Over the long term,” Renfro says, “Louisiana’s wetlands neither can be rebuilt nor sustained without restoring the flow of sediment from the river.” 

Least tern adult warming newborn chicks

Recent research shows that such nature-based techniques are considerably more cost-effective for protecting shorelines than artificial solutions such as seawalls. According to a group of scientists from the University of California–Santa Cruz and other institutions, using natural approaches saves $7 for every $1 spent on restoring an area. The ratio for artificial solutions, the study finds, is about $1 for $1.

CPRA’s deputy executive director, Greg Grandy, has been pleased with the agency’s progress. “What we’ve done so far without using Louisiana taxpayers’ dollars is impressive, but let’s never forget why we’re getting this funding and why we need it,” he adds. “The loss of life suffered on that rig and the amount of oil that flowed into the Gulf for months were devastating. There is much to remedy.”

Scientists who study the Gulf and its wildlife agree—and plan to continue monitoring the spill’s long-term effects. Texas A&M University’s Harte Research Institute, for example, is leading an effort to develop a science-based “report card” that continually assesses the health of one of the world’s most ecologically diverse ecosystems. According to the institute’s executive director, Larry McKinney, many decades may pass before we discover all of the enduring impacts of the largest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history. “Since the spill,” he says, “we’ve learned that the Gulf is a much more complex place than I think we ever imagined, even those of us who have worked on it for 50 years.


Oil spill worker plants trees

NWF PRIORITY

Rebuilding Gulf Habitats

In the weeks following the Gulf oil spill, the National Wildlife Federation trained volunteers to conduct on-the-ground surveys to help authorities locate oiled wildlife. Working with Gulf-state affiliates and other partners, NWF also mobilized teams to work on cleanup and restoration. In Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, for example, volunteers with NWF partner Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana planted more than 10,000 trees (pictured) to restore coastal forests damaged by hurricanes. At Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge, groups organized by NWF and the Louisiana Wildlife Federation helped biologists plant 20,000 native marsh-grass plugs to restore waterfowl habitat. To the east on Perdido Key, Florida Wildlife Federation members joined military groups rebuilding dunes used by nesting shorebirds. “These gestures were an important start to our restoration work,” says Amanda Moore, deputy director of NWF's Mississippi River Delta Restoration Program. Today, as part of a coalition that includes the National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and Ocean Conservancy, NWF also is advising Gulf-state agencies on large-scale restoration projects supported by the federal RESTORE Act. To learn more, see nwf.org/gulf.


 Mark Wexler is National Wildlife's editor-at-large.


More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Blog: Estuaries Benefit from 20 New Projects to Restore the Gulf of Mexico »
Our Work: Gulf Restoration » 
Blog: Restoring the Gulf by Protecting the Coast »

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