A look back at the last month’s events and the spill’s impacts to date

05-20-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Oil rig burning

On April 20, 2010, an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig killed 11 workers and marked the beginning of what is now being called the largest environmental disaster in America's history

In the month since it began, the BP oil spill has revealed the true cost of America’s addiction to oil, and its effects have rippled from the shores of Louisiana to the halls of Congress. As National Wildlife Federation continues to build a comprehensive Gulf recovery and restoration plan, here is a look back at the last month’s events and the spill’s impacts to date:

Eight times bigger than Exxon Valdez (and growing)

Purdue University Professor Steve Werely has calculated the flow of the spill to be 70,000 barrels per day (much higher than the now widely discredited official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day), through scientific analysis of recent video documenting the underwater oil leak. Based on this estimate, the spill is already 8 times larger than the Exxon Valdez. This is enough oil to spread a rainbow sheen over an area the size of California.

Oil has started to make landfall, with Louisiana reporting 30 miles of affected shoreline and marshlands.

Wildlife impacts adding up

Officials from NOAA and the Fish and Wildlife Service have reported that 154 sea turtles, 12 dolphins and more than 20 migratory birds have been found dead or dying on Gulf beaches. It is too early to say exactly how severe the impact of the spill and unprecedented amounts of chemical dispersants being used to break up the oil will be on the Gulf’s delicate ecosystem, but officials are bracing for long-term effects. Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said at a news conference. "It will affect fish and wildlife resources ... for years, if not decades."

When will it end?

Several unsuccessful attempts at stopping the flow of oil have been made:

  • On April 27 BP announced that underwater robots had failed to turn off the flow of oil.
  • On May 6 a containment dome was lowered onto the leak, but had to be removed after it became clogged with ice crystals.
  • On May 17 BP announced that a tube it had inserted into the leaking pipe was gathering one-fifth of the gushing oil. It is now collecting an estimated 3000 barrels per day.
  • BP plans to employ a “top kill” on May 23, which involves shooting mud and cement into the pipe to plug the leak.

In addition, millions of feet of booms have been deployed, barriers have been erected, and controlled burns have been conducted as part of efforts to contain oil from the spill.

Leilani Munter

Hundreds of miles of toxic soup

More than 600,000 gallons of chemical dispersants have been used on the surface and another 55,000 gallons of chemical dispersants have been used at the source of the spill, on the bottom of the ocean. Because dispersed oil doesn't disappear (It is simply no longer visible on the surface because it is mixed into the water column), the impacts of the dispersed oil on the Gulf’s marine ecosystem remain largely hidden from the public eye.

On May 6, National Wildlife Federation held a press conference in Venice, LA to discuss the potential environmental impacts of the dispersants BP is using on the oil spill.

Fishermen, tourism could lose big

Shrimp, oysters and other seafood pump $2.4 billion a year into the Gulf coast economy. Because it may take years for fish, birds and wildlife in the Gulf to fully recover, the economic consequences for the commercial fishing industry could be prolonged and severe. As of May 19 the areas closed by NOAA to fishing comprise approximately 19 percent of the Gulf of Mexico federal waters or 45,000 square miles (roughly the size of the PA).

In Florida, many are worried about how the oil spill might impact the state’s tourism industry. Already, “local hotels have reported 778 room/night cancelations from nervous tourists.”

Getting answers

Congress has held a slew of committee hearings over the past few weeks - with more to come -  in an attempt to understand the policies and practices that led to the spill, evaluate response efforts, and assess impacts. 

  • May 11: Senate Energy and Natural Resources - "Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Accident"
  • May 11: Senate Environment and Public Works - "Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill's Environmental Impacts"
  • May 12: House Energy and Commerce - "Deepwater Horizon Rig Oil Spill"
  • May 17: Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs - "Gulf Coast Catastrophe: Assessing the Nation's Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill"
  • May 18: Senate Energy and Natural Resources - Testimony from the Administration on accident involving the Deepwater Horizon
  • May 18: Senate Environment and Public Works - "Federal Response to the Recent Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico"
  • May 18: Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation - "Response Efforts to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill"
  • May 19: House Transportation and Infrastructure - "Deepwater Horizon: Oil Spill Prevention and Response Measures, and Natural Resource Impacts"


  • May 25: Senate Energy and Natural Resources - Testimony on the liability and financial responsibility issues involving the Deepwater Horizon
  • May 25: Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs - Hearings to examine assessing the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
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