One year ago tonight, a giant fireball erupted from deep below the Gulf of Mexico, swallowing an oil rig on the surface and killing 11 people on board. The Deepwater Horizon was still in flames the next morning, and within two days it would sink; meanwhile, the mile-deep wellhead had begun spewing oil, eventually releasing some 200 million gallons over 12 weeks. Now, 12 months after the Gulf oil spill began, people across the country — and especially the Gulf Coast — are looking back at that terrible night, reflecting on what has and hasn't changed in the year since.
"I can't believe tomorrow has been one year because it seems like everything just happened," the widow of Roy Wyatt Kemp, one of the men who died on the Deepwater Horizon, wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday. Relatives of those 11 men will fly over the Gulf today to mark the somber occasion, the AP reports, circling the site several times in a helicopter. Vigils are also scheduled back on land in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, where tar balls from the Macondo well still occasionally wash ashore, forcing locals to remember the spill even on non-anniversaries. "It's been the hardest year of my life," the owner of King Neptune's seafood restaurant in Gulf Shores, Ala., tells the New York Times, echoing the sentiments of many Gulf Coast residents.
BP has so far paid out just $3.8 billion of its $20 billion restitution fund, a pace that has spurred plenty of anger along the Gulf Coast. (For any spill victims who haven't done so yet, today is the deadline for filing claims to be included in a federal trial against rig owner Transocean Ltd.) At the same time, the Huffington Post reports that Congress still hasn't raised the liability cap for companies that cause oil spills. Despite a year of efforts to raise the cap to $10 billion, or even remove it entirely, it still stands at a meager $75 million, as it did before the Gulf spill. "I can't believe Congress hasn't addressed things like liability, and that some lawmakers still are dead set on carrying out the oil industry's agenda, regardless of all the safety, economic and environmental concerns," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tells the Post.
Of course, the news a year later isn't all bad. The U.S. government announced Tuesday that fishing can resume in the last Gulf waters that had been closed due to the spill, and federal lab tests on seafood show oil- and dispersant-related chemicals far lower than the smallest levels of concern. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recently told the AP the Gulf's health is "much better than people feared," and many of the region's fishermen, shrimpers and oil-rig workers have already returned to work. But countless others still haven't, and an array of economists and ecologists warn against premature optimism. There are large numbers of dead sea turtles and dolphins washing up on Gulf beaches, for example, enough to spur NOAA to declare them "unusual mortality events" and launch an investigation. As University of Miami oceanographer Jerald Ault tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the end of the spill wasn't the end of the story — and no one knows yet how it will turn out. "The thing is, we don't know what the long-term impacts will be, because something like this has never happened here," he says. "It's like we've been put in this movie that no one has written the ending to yet. And it won't be written for years."
One day before the anniversary of a historic offshore drilling disaster, the U.S. government gave a big boost to a very different kind of offshore energy: wind. Federal regulators on Tuesday approved the Cape Wind project, a long-planned, 130-turbine wind farm to be built in Nantucket Sound off the Massachusetts coast. Construction could now begin as early as this fall, the Boston Globe reports, finally giving the U.S. its first offshore wind farm after 10 years of regulatory back-and-forth.
"We can build a smarter U.S. program for offshore wind," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday in Boston. "The wind potential off the Atlantic coastline is staggering. We believe that smart planning and early environmental reviews will result in big dividends." But, he added, "taking 10 years to permit an offshore wind farm like Cape Wind is simply unacceptable," and the Obama administration is looking at ways to streamline the process. Cape Wind developers say it will power roughly 200,000 homes under average wind conditions, and Salazar said Tuesday it could create 600 to 1,000 jobs — not to mention the tens of thousands of jobs nationwide that the wind-power industry could generate, he added. Proponents of Cape Wind, including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, say it's poised to jump-start a new offshore wind industry throughout the region, and eventually the country. "States up and down the East Coast are now looking to Massachusetts with envy as we launch this brand-new American industry," Patrick said in a statement.
But Cape Wind isn't entirely out of the woods yet. It still has ardent detractors, including local Native American groups and conservationists who argue it will spoil the area's cultural significance and visual beauty. "It's a national treasure that should not be industrialized," says Audra Parker, head of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, who called Tuesday's announcement "a blatant attempt to declare victory in a battle that is far from over." Other critics say the $2.6 billion project is too expensive and will place too high a burden on electric rate payers. Opponents have filed nearly a dozen lawsuits to stop the wind farm from being built, the AP reports.
Despite the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan — which could last up to nine more months, officials revealed this week — a slim majority of Americans still see nuclear power as a generally safe energy source, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. But, the Post reports, nearly two-thirds of poll respondents also reject the idea of building new reactors in the U.S. for the time being.
The poll results suggest 53 percent of Americans currently approve of nuclear power, a mirror image of the 53 percent who took the opposite position after the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. While the Japanese and Ukrainian disasters are both level 7 nuclear disasters — the highest possible rating on the international scale for such events — Chernobyl was far worse in terms of radioactive releases, something respondents may have factored into their answers. (Although people may also be growing more desensitized to nuclear disasters.) Regardless, the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant has still had some effect on public perception of nuclear power, with more than four in 10 respondents saying they're now less confident in the safety of U.S. reactors than they were before.
Perhaps the poll's biggest revelation is how firmly Americans now seem to oppose building any new nuclear reactors. A 2008 poll found that 53 percent were against such new construction and 44 percent were in favor of it; the new poll shows 64 percent opposed and 33 percent in favor. The poll also shows high levels of people saying they're "strongly opposed" to new plants, up to 47 percent from just 23 percent a decade ago. And that strong opposition jumps to 59 percent when the hypothetical new plant would be built within 50 miles of respondents' homes, the Post reports.
The Pacific Northwest has been hit with relentless snow and rain in recent months, thanks to a powerful La Niña in the Pacific Ocean, prompting frequent water-related problems such as floods and avalanches. And, as the New York Times reports, the wet winter has also given the region's residents another, less expected problem: hordes of moss, invading lawns, gardens, homes and even cars.
"So many of the calls we get are from people who actually want to get rid of moss," says Sue Hartman, who helps answer a hot line run by the local organic-gardening group Seattle Tilth. "But this being the Pacific Northwest, moss is really kind of a native plant. I personally love moss, and my pals here at Tilth also love moss." Yet Hartman acknowledges this has been "an extraordinary year for moss," so she tries to counsel people who see the low-growing, moisture-loving natives as a pest. "When we see something that doesn't look right to us, our first instinct is we need to correct it," she says. "But if moss is growing somewhere, it's growing there for a reason. Perhaps you're trying to grow grass in a place where grass doesn't want to grow." The moss isn't just invading lawns, though — the Northwest is home to a wide array of moss species, and they tend to be rather opportunistic. "There's the moss that grows on trees, and there's the moss that grows in your car," points out one local resident.
Still, despite the region's unusual abundance of moss at the moment, it's a welcome success story in an age when so many ecosystems are overrun with invasive plants. To see an iconic, relatively harmless Northwest native thriving so widely can be both inspiring and humbling, says longtime Seattle opinion columnist Knute Berger, whose nickname is Mossback. "There's something about the moss image to me that is kind of the democratizing aspect of nature," Berger tells the Times. "You might have a lot of money and you can fend most of it off, but you're still going to have some moss on your roof."
Protestors riot against the Industrial Revolution, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, and more
Photo (Deepwater Horizon fire on April 20, 2010): ZUMA Press
Photo (Dutch offshore wind farm): U.S. Energy Department
Photo (nuclear reactors): Oak Ridge National Laboratory