Oceana Belize - Six Years On And We’re Still Counting The Ways BP Oil Spill Is Hurting Lives And Livelihoods. Why would we ever want this for Belize? April 20, 2016, marked the six year anniversary of the worst environmental catastrophe in United States history, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon. When the rig exploded, it killed 11 people, injured 17 others and for the next 87 days, spewed almost 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster wiped out wildlife and crippled thousands of businesses. The really scary part? The spill is still affecting tourism and fishing communities thousands of miles away from the accident site. And yes, the places impacted include Belize.
Case in point: 2015’s attack of the seaweed. Alongside multiple Caribbean destinations, massive amounts of sargassum drowned Belize’s beach tourism product. The sight, and smell, was unbearable. Tourism industry leaders organized emergency task teams to figure out a response. On the beaches, residents rallied together to combat the calamity. But the PowerPoints and plans, rakes and pitchforks were no match for the sargassum that came ashore in waves for weeks on end. Tourists changed reservations. Who wants to sunbathe or swim in sargassum, sandflies and stench? Coastal communities could only hold their collective breath until it went away. In the meantime, scientists were investigating the root cause of the bloom. And they traced the disaster to the dispersant used in the BP clean up.
Hundrends of tons of Sargassum invaded the coastline of Belize in 2015 and into 2016
BP used a dispersant called Corexit in the Gulf in unprecedented quantities—more than ever used to “clean up” any spill. Corexit is usually sprayed from ships but BP response crews also pumped the dispersant 5,000 feet below the sea’s surface. Added to an ocean already affected by oil spills, global warming and toxic waste, the dispersant helped to create yet another widespread environmental and economic disaster years after it was used. The sargassum build up off coastlines was so thick, it projected almost a mile offshore in some locations. Sunlight couldn’t penetrate through the mass. That’s translated to die off of sea grass meadows in several areas. Beyond being important nursery grounds for reef and mangrove species, seagrasses help to limit sedimentation. Flyovers of Northern Ambergris Caye in 2016 already show increased “cloudy” water in places where seagrasses died.
All this is why Mexican and Caribbean tourism stakeholders are still holding their breath, hoping that the sargassum won’t be back in 2016. But the tough truth is no one really knows what will happen next. The sargassum may or may not be as bad this year. Or it might be something different but just as damaging. Numerous scientific studies into the impacts of the spill continue to conclude widespread and catastrophic damage “to plant and animal species in all parts of the food chain across the affected zones.” A recent analysis of the impact of Deepwater Horizon shows that as many as 800,000 seabirds died, large numbers of dolphins and whales perished or suffered prolonged reproductive problems, and coral reefs over an area three times the size of Manhattan were damaged . A new report released by Oceana indicates the impact of the spill on the fisheries industry could total 8.7 billion US dollars and result in 22,000 jobs being lost by 2020. Even the 50,000 people involved in the clean-up were exposed to dangerous chemicals.
That staggering reality has prompted a Mexican non-governmental organization to embark on a class action lawsuit against BP. The case is brought by Sinaloa Class Actions, which is composed of lawyers specializing in environmental disasters. The legal challenge is against four BP subsidiaries – two headquartered in Texas and two in Mexico. According to the claim, the oil from the BP rig – located (50 miles) off the south-east coast of Louisiana –reached Mexican shores on 30 April 2010. And the group says since then, hundreds of communities which rely on fishing and tourism in the worst-affected states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo have seen their livelihoods “plummet”, claiming “the damage is ongoing.”
The launch of the lawsuit is one of a series of things BP has had to deal with this anniversary month. The company recently agreed a final settlement of more than 20 billion US dollars with authorities over the damages that resulted from the company’s gross negligence in the Gulf. It’s the biggest pollution penalty in US history. Don’t feel too badly for BP though. Even though the company has axed more than seven thousand jobs since the Gulf spill, management still found it justifiable to pay BP Chief Bob Dudley approximately 20 million dollars for his leadership during a ‘difficult’ time. But a US agency, the United States Chemical Safety Board, has found that neither regulations nor industry practices have improved since 2010. That’s why the US Department of the Interior has only now proposed mandatory standards for oil well infrastructure, more frequent monitoring and repairs of equipment. The industry is already pushing back, saying the price tag of the new measures is too high.
But aren’t the ecosystems, the living factories that provide our clean water, air and food, worth protecting? “Six years later, the lesson from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is clear: offshore drilling is not safe for marine ecosystems, the economy or human health,” said Oceana marine scientist Dr. Ingrid Biedron. “We know that opening new areas to offshore drilling poses unacceptable risks.” In the US, Oceana is advocating against the expansion of offshore drilling in US waters and against using disruptive technologies like seismic airgun blasting, which can disrupt marine life, to search for oil and gas.
Here in Belize, Oceana continues to advocate for the protection of Belizean resources from the inherent and irrevocable environmental and economic dangers of offshore oil. “Other countries are already successfully transitioning to clean energy solutions,” says Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, Janelle Chanona. “Belize’s national energy plan should not include offshore oil.”
In December 2015, the Government of Belize announced its decision to permanently ban offshore oil activity in a kilometer wide area along the Belize Barrier Reef and within World Heritage Sites; that’s roughly 20% of Belizean waters. That means that if the self-imposed moratorium on offshore oil activity currently in place is ever lifted by the Government, it would expose approximately 80% of the country’s waters to the same types of impacts the Gulf of Mexico is still reeling from six years later. Considering the number of tourists that changed their travel plans because of sargassum, do we dare imagine what will happen to tourism if oil rigs ever replace sailboats on the horizon? Or when oil washes up on the beach?
Every Belizean living at home or abroad shares a deep connection to our extraordinary marine resources. The Belize Barrier Reef is the single entity that unites us all. What we have at sea took thousands of years to form but it’s extremely vulnerable to a wide range of factors. We cannot afford to add to the list of threats. This is not lost on the Belizean public. For a case study of national consciousness of the importance of Belize’s natural resources, we need only look at the results of what is still the only national poll on a development issue, the People’s Referendum, organized by Oceana and other NGOs, which saw participation of 15% of Belizean voters (approximately 30,000). The results were not binding but it is highly indicative of strong sentiment: more than 90% of the participants voted against offshore oil. Those results are a reflection of a Belize cognizant of its dependence on fishing, tourism and the lifesaving powers of the reef every day. Those results are a reflection of our national determination to give our children and grandchildren the quality of life they deserve. Those results are a reflection that this is an economic issue, not just an environmental one.
Those results need to be reflected in law.