Five Years Since BP: Gulf Watchdogs Reflect on the Other Gulf Oil Spill

April 22, 2015 – Five years ago today the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion claimed 11 lives and touched off a disaster that still poisons the Gulf Coast. While the 2010 BP disaster undeniably devastated Gulf communities and ecosystems, few people realize that chronic oil and gas pollution from other sources is impacting the Gulf Coast on an almost daily basis. Since July 15, 2010, the date when BP finally “capped” the gushing Macondo well, the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC) has recorded at least 9,800 spills of crude oil, petrochemicals, and other contaminants into Gulf Waters.

(Above): SkyTruth’s map showing spills reported to the NRC since July 2010. Each dot on the map represents an individual spill report. This map does not include releases to the air, only spills to the waters of the Gulf. Click here to see a full-screen version.

While any one of these individual spills may not garner the attention that the BP disaster does, the cumulative impact of this chronic pollution deserves its own attention. Government regulators, and the oil and gas industry, promised to fix the problems that led to the BP disaster. Yet as NPR reports, near-daily oil spills still continue to be business as usual.

Above: Photos taken by GRN illustrate the chronic pollution in the Gulf.

 Faced with a lack of substantial response from government regulators, community organizations joined forces to form the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC). GMC pairs local conservationists with air support from volunteer pilots and intelligence from geospatial data and satellite image analysts. GMC partners systematically monitor for oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico using satellite images, geospatial data, observation and sampling on the ground and in the water, and aerial reconnaissance. 

5 Years Since Deepwater Horizon – GMC Tracks Chronic Pollution in the Gulf

Here are some examples of the work conducted by GMC partners to document and respond to pollution in the Gulf.

GMC partners have published reports on the underreporting of chronic offshore oil pollution and spills resulting from inadequate preparations for Hurricane Isaac. GMC partners are playing a pivotal role in exposing the ongoing oil leak 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana at an offshore oil platform destroyed eleven years ago by Hurricane Ivan.

SkyTruth monitors the Gulf using satellite imagery and geospatial data, providing intelligence to partners in the air, on the ground, and in the water. SkyTruth first identified the leaking Taylor Energy Site 23051 during the 2010 Gulf Oil Disaster, documents offshore accidents and near misses by reviewing government data and satellite imagery, and provides guidance to GMC partners and other conservation pilots.

 Gulf Restoration Network is a tireless monitor of Gulf Coasts and Gulf waters, taking thousands of photographs from the air, and collecting samples from the ground and water. Based on direct observations made during monitoring trips over the last five years GRN has reported more than 50 oil and gas related spills to the NRC.

Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper and other members of the Waterkeeper Alliance serve as GMC’s on-the-water guides, documenting leaking infrastructure from the water and participating in aerial monitoring (above) provided by SouthWings. Waterkeeper Alliance and Gulf waterkeepers have also filed a lawsuit against Taylor Energy over the ongoing spill at Site 23051.

SouthWings has been flying in the Gulf of Mexico since 1998. Since SouthWings launched the first official Gulf Monitoring Consortium flight on May 7, 2011, twelve different volunteer pilots have contributed 33 flights to GMC member organizations’ fossil fuel pollution monitoring work. Through these collaborations, GMC members have learned much about documenting and reporting oil spills in open water.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade exemplifies citizen response to pollution, launching and maintaining the iWitness Pollution Map, enabling anyone to report their photos and observations of oil and petrochemical pollution.

Public Lab was founded in direct response to the BP oil spill and the lack of access to information and images about the spill. Using balloons and kites, over 200 volunteers worked to collect over 100,000 images mapping over 100 miles of affected shoreline. Public Lab continues to develop low-cost open-source monitoring tools such as the new oil testing kit for use by citizen-scientists.

Five years since the start of the worst accidental oil spill in history, industry and government assure us that offshore oil development is safer than ever. Consortium partners, however, will continue to document and report on the reality that we observe through systematic monitoring of the Gulf offshore oil fields.

[SouthWings] Best Practices in Aerial Observation of Oil Spills in Open Water


In the five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April of 2010 — killing 11 people and leading to an uncontrolled 87-day oil gusher that covered vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico in oil — SouthWings and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium have learned much about effective citizen reporting of pollution, especially related to oil spills in water. Thanks to the work of SkyTruth, we have also learned that there are oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico on an almost daily basis. While it certainly takes some practice to train your eyes to spot oil on water at a distance while flying, here are a few tips and some resources to get you started:

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The basics:

  • When to fly: fly during a time of low-angle light (early morning works well) for the best visibility of oil sheen on water. Pick a clear day with low wind and seas (waves break up spills and make them harder to spot).
  • Tips: we find that polarized sunglasses can make oil sheen harder to spot. Some people also recommend wearing non-reflective colors (black), especially if you’ll need to take photographs through plexiglass.
  • Photos: be sure to note altitude and direction photos are taken. If possible, include oil platforms, boats, etc. in photos for scale. Note color of oil sheen, as well as approximate dimensions and direction it seems to be moving. Noting coordinates of each spill is critical. Some cameras automatically GPS tag photos, but, if yours does not, a lower-tech option is to snap a photo of the coordinates on an external GPS unit; there are many higher-tech options that will geotag your photos with a bit of post-flight processing (details on a free option here). Document anything you see about a potential source of the problem and any information about a suspected responsible party.
  • Reporting spills: call the National Response Center (NRC), operated by the US Coast Guard, at 1-800-424-8802. It’s important to file NRC reports for spills of oil or potentially hazardous materials you notice (whether you find them on flights or otherwise), as this is the only way to ensure that the spill is included in the public, official government record.

Details and additional resources:

  • Training manual: before you fly, be sure to download and read Open Water Oil Identification Job Aid for Aerial Observation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It has great examples of what to look for and will help you avoid common false positives, such as seaweed clumps and cloud shadows.
  • Checklist: printable oil observation checklist from NOAA here.
  • Estimating spill volume: the color of the oil sheen varies with thickness of the oil spill. Gray sheen is the thinnest, followed by rainbow sheen and then metallic sheen. A thicker oil spill will have a darker color closer to “true” oil color. There are a variety of standards for making oil spill volume estimates based on visual assessments, so always state which standard you’re using if you make a volume estimate. The Bonn Agreement Oil Appearance Code is a scientifically rigorous and straightforward option.

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Here are a few great examples of Gulf Monitoring Consortium collaboration on aerial monitoring from Gulf Restoration Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

If you’re a pilot and would be interested in volunteering to fly with Gulf Monitoring Consortium members, please contact David Moore at SouthWings:

Photos: Jeffrey Dubinsky for Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper (top of page); Jonathan Henderson for Gulf Restoration Network (bottom of page). Flights provided by SouthWings.