Why the Deepwater Horizon Spill Will Haunt This Year’s Super Bowl

As 160 million people tune into the big game, the environmental ills of the Deepwater Horizon spill still haunt New Orleans.

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, April 21, 2010 (Photo: Handout /Reuters)

Jan 30, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

One out of two Americans—more than 160 million people—will watch at least part of the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 3. That’s a lot of eyeballs focused on the host city of New Orleans.

Given the storms and environmental horrors that usually drag NOLA into the headlines, it’s good for the city to be seen in full, dress-up party mode. But hopefully some energetic television producer, reporter, or camera person will think during the eight-hour televised run-up to the game to tell a story or two about how the city and state are doing post Hurricane Katrina and post Deepwater Horizon.

As a teaser, I called up Michael Orr, operations director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), and asked how business was in a state too often known for environmental messes over environmental successes.

LEAN, started more than 20 years ago by his mother, MaryLee Orr, has been involved with every environmental fight in the state. In fact, just last week they launched a new website—Sola2050.org—a multimedia platform of profiles and stories focused on both educating and inspiring folks in southern Louisiana. The goal is to keep adding stories to the site for another four decades or so, thus providing a record of how Louisianans are feeling about the state of their state as time marches on.

TakePart: LEAN has been in business for a couple decades and among the staff you've heard thousands of stories from Louisianans about environmental messes and cleanups. What inspired you to now start collecting the voices of fishermen and oil workers, doctors and environmental advocates?

Michael Orr: It has become very apparent in the wake of disaster like BP that most people in South Louisiana, especially younger people, haven't heard these stories. When your work relates to these sorts of things and when you grow up around them as [my brother] Paul and I did, it is easy to forget that not everyone knows these stories or has been exposed to them their whole life.

We feel there are valuable learning lessons to be found in the many stories of environmental struggles, which we hope to collect. There is also inspiration and awareness to be found in stories that outline the beauty and diversity of the environment in Southern Louisiana. We hope it will both encourage questions and help pass along lessons learned.

What are your greatest environmental concerns in Louisiana today?

Ignorance and attitude. The greatest concern still is that "concern for the environment" simply isn't part of most people's thought process here. You can see it in something as simple as the litter problem we have along our roads and waterways.

The other problem is attitude or resignation. Among people that do have an awareness of the environment, there is a prevalent feeling that our role as a state is to prioritize industry over the environment.

It is interesting that people refer to Louisiana as having a "working coast" and that if you want to take a vacation to the Gulf Coast, you go to Florida or Alabama, and there is justification for that because our coast is saturated by industrial development. But it is unfortunate that we cannot find a better balance. Why should we sacrifice one for the other? Louisiana's coastal areas have been home to Native Americans for hundreds of years, from long before Europeans ever settled here, and now that industry has been here since roughly the 1920s, we are ready to write off this entire area as an industrial worksite.

Perhaps the biggest yet-to-be-told story of the Deepwater Horizon accident is the impact on human health. When do you think we'll really wake up to the impact that both the spill and the cleanup had on humans?

That's hard to say. We feel we have gathered plenty of examples of these sorts of incidents impacting people's health in different communities health, but taken individually they seem to do little about raising the public awareness of these health concerns.

That is one of the goals of our new website, to collect the history and evidence together to illustrate this unfortunate trend. People typically take a long time to learn from bad news, especially when they benefit from what's causing the harm, as in the oil and gas industry. We try not to talk only about the negatives of oil and gas drilling because we feel as Louisianans that we need it for our economy. But at the same time it is ridiculous to ignore the downside of something just because you like the upside.

Does anything give you hope that an accident like the Deepwater Horizon spill won't happen again?

To be honest, we have not seen any real changes in the way we continue to push the envelope in our quest for oil. But over time this event will be one of many that will hopefully change the way we think about industry and risk-taking for the sake of profit.

What is it that makes Louisianans, especially it's coastal residents, so resilient?

Louisiana's coast has always been a harsh environment. It has always been hot and humid, there have always been hurricanes, and many of the settlements have always been remote and far away from developed cities like New Orleans. So the people that have settled here have always been tough, they have been self-reliant, hard working and able to survive in a harsh environment without having much or relying on anyone else.

The people of southern Louisiana are used to struggling, to getting by with very little, to not having the convenience and comforts of more developed cities and modern life. But now, because of what civilization has done—building levees around the Mississippi River, dredging thousands of miles of canals through the marsh, and having industrial accidents—those coastal residents are losing the one thing that allowed them to survive. The land. As Louisiana's coastline continues to disappear, so will its people, their lifestyle and its history.