Toxicity Translations

The Twilight of the BP Oil Spill
by Abigail McEwen -- October 7th, 2013

Last week, phase 2 of the BP oil spill trial began. During this 3 phase trial, scheduled to conclude in 2014, the Federal District Court in New Orleans will determine the fines BP owes under the Clean Water Act. Watching the events of this trial unfold, I reflect on the role this disaster played in my decision to pursue environmental management.

The Gulf Coast holds a special place in my heart. My Dad’s family live in Fort Walton Beach, located on the panhandle of Florida. When I was growing up, we would drive down from Atlanta to visit them every Thanksgiving. For me, this yearly pilgrimage meant two very special things: freshly caught sea food and the beach.

I have very distinct memories of those childhood experiences. Snorkeling by a small pier and watching hermit crabs and other crustaceans scuttle around on the ocean floor. Running from the white sand into the crystal clear green-blue water. Watching the ocean floor from a glass bottom boat. Seeing a school of dolphins swimming into the sunset. Eating fried red snapper caught and prepared by my Grandfather. Listening to my Grandma talk about the last hurricane that came through.

Seabird playing in the Gulf waters

Having spent the majority of my life landlocked, this is the only coast I have ever known. My experiences here have given me a profound appreciation not only for marine life, but also for coastal communities.

So when news of the Deepwater Horizon explosion broke in April 2010, I was devastated. For the next few weeks, I closely watched the headlines, hoping for some swift resolution. Some of the pictures that surfaced during this time period will stay burned in my memory forever. It was months before the spill was finally contained and by the end I couldn’t stand to follow the news any longer.

What I remember most about this time was feeling incredibly powerless. I could only watch as the coast was contaminated by thick black oil — and then by mysterious toxic oil dispersants that pushed the oil from the surface, only to create toxic underwater plumes. After experiencing this, I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life watching events like this happen from the sidelines. I wanted an active role.

Clear skies and crystal water viewed from the shores of Fort Walton Beach

For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I was going to accomplish this. Two years later, I finally discovered ecotoxicology and the pieces began to fall into place. I had  finally found a way to fuse my biology background and my environmental passion. I became involved in aquatic ecotox and water quality research. Finally, I had found my niche.

Now, I find myself at Duke, still chasing these research fields, but also gaining perspectives on management and policy. I often think of the Gulf disaster as I sit through my classes, learning how chemicals travel through aquatic environments or how management decisions are made.

The oil spill had little direct effect on my life. Unlike the families that lost loved ones when the oil rig blew, or the workers who were exposed to toxic chemicals during the aftermath, or those who lost their livelihood when the fishing and tourism industries sank, or the already vulnerable ecosystems that were completely devastated. The list goes on and on.

As of now, we do not even know the full consequences this event had on human and environmental health. And even as we wait for these results to surface, we continue to engage in offshore drilling.

Seabirds run from the incoming tide

Anyone interested in water quality, environmental health, energy policy, or numerous other environmental fields should be able to follow the BP trial as it plays out this month. BP has already won a partial victory and the rest of the trial is sure to be heated!


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