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Gulf Oil Spill: Man-made disaster
April saw one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, placing the BP debacle at No. 4
Last Modified: 26 Dec 2010 10:03
Though estimated to cost billions of dollars, it is difficult to predict the extent to which the environment was permanently damaged by the oil spill [AFP]

In late April, a surprise explosion on the Deepwater Horizon mobile drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico caused arguably the worst environmental disaster that the US has ever faced.

While the initial death toll was 11 platform workers, British Petroleum and US government officials did not notice the oil leak for days.

Even after the flow was acknowledged, estimates of the volume rose and rose. By July, the leak was temporarily stopped and then by September, it was officially cemented.

The Coast Guard and other agencies had rushed to contain the spill - around 75km from the shore - but the amount of oil leaked exceeded many worst-case scenarios.

Scientists struggled to come up with a silver bullet to close the wellhead, and news media focused on the various technologies used. Among the failed attempts were robots to activate a “blowout preventer”, “top hat” steel sleeve, “top kill” debris plug, and containment caps.

Sea turtles, pelicans and hermit crabs were killed by crude oil as it washed its way into the Louisiana bayou and vulnerable wetlands. The oil created a kill zone around the leak, and toxic dispersants used to push back the spilled oil have caused further damage to wildlife and human habitats along the Gulf coast.

The tourism and fishing industries took a massive hit, and one-third of the Gulf was closed to fishermen. BP set up a $20bn compensation fund, and its stock price was cut in half.

The total cost of the disaster has been estimated at between $29bn and $63bn, and the environmental cleanup is ongoing. Political fallout from the catastrophe was massive, and President Obama’s approval ratings suffered when the disaster worsened.

As the largest-ever oil spill in US waters, BP has suffered the legal brunt of the disaster, being named in a December US government suit. The industry’s safety record has come to public attention, and the White House has sought to stop further offshore drilling.

Though President Obama had hoped the magnitude of the environmental calamity would be impetus for new legislation to “green” the US economy, this has not yet occurred.

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