Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, Political, Technical

Was Gulf of Mexico oil spill world’s worst man-made disaster?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill – variously referred to as the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the BP oil spill, the Macondo blowout and so forth – that began on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect site had been dubbed as the world’s worst man-made environmental disaster by the frenzied American media, local, regional and national politicians and the brazenly self-interested groups. But does it stack up to the reality check?

The accident in the Macondo field (28.74 N and 88.38 W) that resulted in the fatality of 11 workers and casualty of another 17 workers and the total discharge of 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gallons) of oil was, according to tabloid press at that time, the largest environmental disaster in American history. Although BP owned the lease of the Macondo oil site, the oil rig was owned and operated by Transocean (an American company), drilling and safety assessment responsibility was vested on Halliburton (another American company) and the blowout preventer manufacturer was Cameron International.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Notwithstanding the delegation of operational and safety responsibilities on multiplicity of companies, particularly on American companies, the US District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Carl Barbier, ruled in his judgement in September 2014 that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill. In July 2015, BP had to agree to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in the United States history. Altogether, as of April 2018, the cost of clean-up, compensation to private individuals, corporate charges and other penalties on BP amounted to a staggering $65 billion. Some people from as far north as Chicago came to claim compensation in Louisiana and Texas from that oil spill (off the coast of New Orleans in Gulf of Mexica)! It was a free-for-all compensation bonanza for the American deplorables! The local press in Texas (which has a very large oil industry), as well as American national press started floating the idea that this was the opportunity to swallow up the oil company BP, which was the 6th largest oil company in the world!  

Following the accident, BP initiated a massive response to protect the beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the oil spill by commissioning skimmer ships, floating booms, controlled burns of oil and using oil dispersant (nearly 1.84 million of US gallons). Although there were several failed attempts to block the well head, finally on 15th July 2019 it was capped. On 19th September 2010, the well was declared totally sealed by the regulators.

Although it took 87 days to plug the well-head, the long-term effects were far less than what local media had whipped up. Within weeks of the leak being plugged, the traces of oil on the surface of the sea and adverse effects on the coastline had disappeared. Now, about nine years after that disaster, the effects had completely gone and the said disaster is all but a distant memory!

Tranquil deep blue sea (Gulf of Mexico)

On a recent cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, I found the area spectacular, virtually a haven of tranquillity, where a number of large cruise ships, each carrying 4,000 or more holiday makers, are operating nearly every day of the week! The water is crystal clear, there is no short-term or long-term effects at all. People in that part of the world are now more occupied with job prospects and worried about global warming, tropical storms and tornedos, extreme rainfall and floods than non-existent consequences from the oil spill.

Just to put this disaster in perspective, it must be pointed out that it was not the world’s largest man-made disaster; it was not even the largest oil disaster. The largest man-made oil disaster occurred in Kuwait during the Gulf war on 10 January 1991 when Iraqi forces deliberately opened the Kuwaiti oil valves as their war strategy. A total of 330 million gallons of oil was spilled, which was one and half times more than the Gulf of Mexico spill. The third largest oil spill occurred in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in June 1979 when the oil well exploded releasing 140 million gallons over a period of ten months.

Accidental release of nearly 32 tons of deadly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) on December 3, 1984 from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India was the world’s worst industrial disaster. The MIC is far more toxic and deadly than chlorine gas used in chemical weapons. The official estimates were that more than 3,800 people (men, women and children) died within three days of the accident and over 3,900 suffered severe and permanent disabling injury. Further afield, over 500,000 people were grievously affected by respiratory problems. Although the American Union Carbide chemical company was the major shareholder in this industrial setup, the company mendaciously managed to transfer its corporate responsibility to UCIL as a standalone entity in India and only paid $470 million (equivalent to $845 million in 2018 money) as compensation. For the death toll of nearly 350 times of Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, American company paid 75 times less compensation. That makes the life of an Indian person as 2625 less valuable than that of an American! Even now, more than 35 years later, over 30,000 people are still suffering from chronic effects – heart, lungs and digestive problems – and large areas are contaminated with toxic chemicals.

World’s worst man-made disaster was, what is now known as, the Ecocide in Vietnam when more than 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals were sprayed in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s by the US military to flush out the Viet Cong guerrillas and wipe out jungles and their hiding grounds. The herbicide called Agent Orange contained dioxin, a deadly carcinogen which causes not only somatic but also genetic defects like spina bifida and other mutation illness. The Vietnamese government estimated that nearly 400,000 people had died from dioxin exposure and over 500,000 children had birth defects. No compensation of any significance or any remedial action by the US government had ever been made.

Any disaster of any sort – whether man-made or natural – is unfortunate. But when man-made disasters produced by powerful nations get away with impunity, just because the nations are powerful, that smacks at the heart of humanity. One day the perpetrators of such catastrophes could face justice of the day. 

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist