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Three Years After the BP Spill and the Gulf Is Still a Mess

Most people have lost faith the in the recovery process, says photojournalist Julie Dermansky.

A dead Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on the beach in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a week before the third anniversary of the BP oil spill.
Photo Credit: Julie Dermansky


Three years after an explosion at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, injured dozens, and set off the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, the waters along Gulf Coast seems almost back to normal. Much of the oil is gone. New Orleans-based photographer  Julie Dermansky says there’s still a lot left. The oil, she says, is often hard to locate because it has a tendency to play hide and seek.

Dermansky, who photographed the spill in 2010 “pretty much non-stop for four months, has been doggedly following the story for the past three years — reading up all the research she can lay her hands on, making trips out to the worst impacted areas in Louisiana every few months, and talking to people from affected communities. In the early days of the spill the spill she was hired by several major publications, including The Times, London, The Washington Post, and Der Spiegel.

But these days she travels without assignment, covering expenses on her own since few publications hire photographers or reporters to cover what’s now an old news story. Last, Dermansky again visited the beaches and marshes along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast — some of the worst hit areas where crews are still cleaning up tar mats and tar balls. I spoke with Dermansky via email and over the phone about her trip and her assessment of the situation in the Gulf Coast.

Maureen Nandini Mitra: What did you find on your recent trip out to Grand Isle, Bay Jimmy in Louisiana, and the Mississippi coast?

Julie Dermansy: There was oil sheen stirred up from the turbulence in the Bay Jimmy PJ Hahn Plaquemines Parish director of coastal zone management, who I accompanied on an oil spotting trip, turned over some of the dead marsh grass and exposed roots covered in hardened oil. There was also hardened oil on top of some of the surface we walked on. With each step on the surface, oil sheen spread around my boots. Much of the vegetation there is now dead. That’s tragic as with less vegetation coastal erosion, already a problem before the spill, has intensified. A rainbow oil sheen has moved over parts of the marsh surface. There were signs of life though: small crabs moving around, snails and, raccoon paw prints.

On Grand Isle, at the state park, I found tar balls ranging from the size of a quarter to eight inches long. The beach was not blanketed in them but you could find one every couple of feet.

On the beach in Mississippi, from Waveland to Pass Christian, I found tar balls and dead animals including a Kemp's Ridely turtle. Though finding dead animals on the beach is not uncommon, I find the quantity of dead animals on the shore in Mississippi alarming. How the animals are dying is impossible to say. There is no proof the deaths are BP related as none of the scientific studies done on the dolphins and sea turtles have been released. The results of those studies are controlled by the NRDA [Natural Resources Damage Assessment] and are part the evidence being used in the current civil trial going on against BP in New Orleans.

MNM: You mentioned earlier that this is a difficult story to cover because of the "hide and seek oil plays." Could you elaborate on that?

JD: From the start of covering the spill it was every photojournalists task to find the oil. There would be a sighting one day and if you could get yourself out to those coordinates you very well may have found it gone. Odds are it wouldn't be in the same place. It kept, and keeps, moving with the tides. Last week the tide is higher then usual and there was a south wind, so odds were if you went to Bay Jimmy where the oil had hit the hardest, you wouldn’t find anything. When I went on Monday (April 15) with PJ Hahn, he was surprised and saddened we found as much as we did.

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