“The Great Invisible” Surveys Deepwater Horizon’s Impacts

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The Great Invisible, the winning documentary at the South By Southwest film festival, tracks how everyone from wealthy oilmen to impoverished fishermen were affected in the Deepwater Horizon aftermath, the Transocean-owned, BP-operated oil drilling rig, that exploded 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010.

Deepwater Horizon, oil spill, Gulf of Mexico

BP Deepwater Horizon 2010 Blowout: With reports of shrimp without eyes, fish covered in sores, and significantly reduced crab catches, impacts to Gulf fisheries are still not well understood. Hydrocarbons from the spill were first trapped in the ocean food chain through contaminated zooplankton, that serve as food for baby fish and shrimp. Image from the US Coast Guard.

Coming on four years ago, BP’s Deepwater Horizon well exploded, unleashing more than 200 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the Gulf. Combined with nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant and 500,000 more tons of gaseous hydrocarbons, a mind-bending volume of pollutants were ultimately dumped into Gulf waters. By far the largest spill in U.S. history, the cumulative size of the surface slick alone was large enough to cover the entire state of Oklahoma.

Though the comprehensive, long-term impacts to biodiversity from the spill are still not fully understood, according to a study that came out last year, the disaster could have a lasting impact on the Gulf of Mexico. The paper suggests that the region’s deep-sea soft-sediment ecosystem could take decades to recover from the 2010 oil spill. Published by the online journal PLoS ONE, it provides comprehensive results on the spill’s effect on deep-water communities at the base of the Gulf’s food chain for the first time.

According to the researchers, the oil spill and plume covered nearly 360 square miles, with the most severe reduction of biological abundance and biodiversity occurring in a region roughly nine miles around the wellhead. Moderate effects were also observed 57 square miles around the wellhead, they added.

“The tremendous biodiversity of meiofauna in the deep-sea area of the Gulf of Mexico we studied has been reduced dramatically,” said Dr. Jeff Baguley, an expert on meiofauna (small invertebrates that live in both marine and fresh water) from the University of Nevada, Reno. “Nematode worms have become the dominant species at sites we sampled that were impacted by the oil. So though the overall number of meiofauna may not have changed much, it’s that we’ve lost the incredible biodiversity.”

Deepwater Horizon, SXSW winner, documentary, Margaret Brown

Winner of Best Documentary at SXSW in 2014, “The Great Invisible” is Margaret Brown’s study of the oil industry and the Deepwater Horizon disaster, from executives to well workers, to fishermen affected by the spill.

The film, directed by Margaret Brown, a native of Mobile, Alabama, said in an interview with TakePart, the film’s title is “all the little things we don’t know about our consumption of oil—like the scene where we learn there’s around 3,500 oil platforms off the Gulf Coast, and some of them are connected to 20 wells each. There’s this underwater factory in the Gulf of Mexico, but we never see it. We just go to the pump, fill it up, and drive off.”

As the EPA recently lifted the ban on BP from doing business with the US federal government, and offshore drilling has moved ahead in the world oceans, with fracking off California, new drilling off Honduras, among others, what have we really learned from this horrific accident? Margaret Brown’s film hopes to remind people: we need to break this addiction to fossil fuels now.

Updated 14 July 2017

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt