GRANDE ISLE, LOUISIANA - Five years ago, technicians capped a well in the Gulf of Mexico that had been spilling oil for 87 days, polluting beaches, estuaries and fishing zones along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coastline. Earlier this month, the British company judged responsible for the disaster, BP, agreed to pay $18.7 billion to coastal states.
That money will help fund restoration projects, but full recovery could still take many more years.
Nearly 70 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States has traditionally come from the Gulf of Mexico. However, large areas were closed to fishing after the oil spill, and seafood distributors had to look elsewhere.
Coastal fishing zones are now open, but Dean Blanchard, owner of Blanchard Seafood, said many of his former customers never came back.
“We are probably losing, I would say, probably $20 million a year worth of sales,” he said.
Blanchard is still angry at BP and said oil companies in general are lax about maintaining equipment in the Gulf.
“We fix our stuff to get ready for next season, but they don’t fix nothin’. They just let it sit out there until it deteriorates to nothin’ and just keep the profit — keep the profit and don’t care about the environment," he said.
Port Fourchon, a short drive from Blanchard’s operation on Grande Isle, has one of the country’s largest oil and gas operation centers.
While the energy industry has had a clear impact on Louisiana's natural areas, it is the state’s most important source of jobs and income. Refineries and storage facilities line the Mississippi River in the state capital, Baton Rouge.
Kyle Graham, executive director of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said that "if you look at the permits that are issued for oil and gas activity, in the near shore, the ones that the state issues, they now require mitigation activity and for all of the fill material to be beneficially utilized.”
He said the state’s share of the BP settlement money would allow Louisiana to address specific problems.
“As we learn more about the effects of this spill, there is money there that we would be able to utilize to come up with a restoration action,” Graham said.
Visitors are returning to the sunny Louisiana coast to fish and swim in Gulf waters. But although they are attracted to the scenery on the Gulf Coast, there are many effects from the BP oil spill that are not so noticeable to the naked eye.
Multiple scientific studies have found oil and other chemicals on the sea floor of the Gulf and in the shells and flesh of various aquatic species.
Opinions on how serious this is vary, but Graham said a full recovery would require more studies and more work.