BP Oil Spill and its Impact on the Ecosystem and Communities of Coastal Louisiana

Essay, 2018

12 Pages, Grade: 95

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Table of Contents



Effects on the Ecosystem

Coastal Erosion: Nothing New

Communities of Coastal Louisiana

BP Disaster Penalties

Moving Forward



The blowout of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010 was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Damages from the event rapidly increased the rate of coastal erosion to the coastal wetlands of Louisiana. This region plays a vital role to our nation’s economy. Many ethnic communities that contribute to the richness of Louisiana’s food, music, and culture also suffered from this event. Settlements from British Petroleum will go towards coastal restoration projects and to compensate coastal communities that suffered as a direct result of the oil spill. Louisiana is now taking on steps to protect and restore the fragile wetlands along its coast over the next 50 years through a $50 billion project known as the Coastal Master Plan.


Louisiana has long been known for its iconic music, food, and culture. Many of Louisiana’s greatest contributions come from its vast coastal wetlands. The marsh region where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. These wetlands produce a wide array of natural resources to include delicious seafood and wildlife (What’s an estuary?”, n.d.). The wetlands have also served a vital function as a hurricane barrier for south Louisiana communities, including New Orleans, they are home to a variety of ethnic communities that contribute to Louisiana’s musical and cultural diversity. The Mississippi River is the primary reason why such assets and communities exist.

The Mississippi River delta has been a dynamic ecosystem for thousands of years. The river collects rich sediment as it travels through the Midwest and meanders its way towards the Gulf. That sediment would get deposited along the channel of the river and its distributaries. Such occurrence created land that gave life to marsh and swamp vegetation. This sediment deposit no longer occurs naturally along the Mississippi River due to the extensive levee system now erected throughout its course to the Gulf. The lack of sediment deposits from the river has caused land to deteriorate and convert to open water, a process known as coastal erosion. Coastal erosion has been destroying miles and miles of coastal wetlands each year, putting the vital functions performed by the wetlands at risk (“Sediment deduction”, n.d.). The rate of coastal erosion was greatly increased because of the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered from an explosion and sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico approximately 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blowout killed 11 people and caused an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf over a course of 87 days until the leak was finally sealed (“Gulf oil spill”, 2017). This event is now recognized as the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Workers from BP and Transocean (owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig), government agencies, as well as local volunteers, tried to control the spread of oil to the beaches and coastal ecosystems immediately following the explosion. This was done by dispensing floating boons into the water to try to contain oil that was on the surface and chemical oil dispersants were used to break down the oil that was submerged (“Gulf oil spill”, 2017). Manual cleanup efforts were also taken by the usage of screened nets and suction pumps. Although rapid response was taken after the event, the coastal ecosystem still managed to suffer tremendous damage.

Effects on the Ecosystem

Some immediate scenes following the spill were pelicans drenched in oil, fish floating belly up in brown sludge, and turtles and dolphins washed up on the beaches. Sea birds were the first animals to be harmed by the crude surface oil. Small amounts of oil in their feathers restricted their abilities to fly, swim, and find food by diving. Reliable estimates of sea bird losses are hard to come by, but it is estimated that the losses reached in the hundreds of thousands (“Gulf oil spill”, 2017).

Fish and shellfish in the Gulf of Mexico were also heavily impacted by the Deepwater Horizon spill in both coastal and offshore areas. Fishing seasons were closed for most of the year following the spill. This was due to the health concerns from the seafood in the oil affected regions. Many of these species suffered from birth defects and other abnormal characteristics. There were reports of fish with lesions and deformities as well as eyeless and deformed shrimp. Fortunately, there seem to be no long term effect of the commercially important species along the Gulf Coast. They have been deemed safe to eat and fishermen have prospered in their yields in the years following (Gulf oil spill”, 2017).

More than 1,000 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico was impacted by oil from the Deepwater Horizon, with Louisiana receiving most of the damage (“Gulf oil spill”, 2017). Much of the area has been cleaned since the disaster. However, the oil killed much of the vegetation in which it came in contact with. The loss of vegetation in the fragile coastal marshes further contributed to coastal erosion in the region.

Coastal Erosion: Nothing New

The wetlands of Louisiana were in grave danger long before the Deepwater Horizon disaster and before Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. They slowly eroded for much of the last century and took with them important resources that the ecosystem provided for the U.S. and well as the rest of the world. Even before the BP oil spill, this land loss was largely a man-made disaster.

Wetland loss began to occur soon after the founding of New Orleans in 1718. The city began depending on the construction of artificial levees to control the Mississippi River and protect it from annual spring flooding. The levee system began to expand and heighten as New Orleans began to prosper. The protection of the city was vital. Thus began one of the slow but steady processes that have contributed the loss of the coastal wetlands (Courselle, 2010).

The Great Flood of 1927 caused severe destruction along much of the Mississippi River. Hundreds of towns and lives were lost as a result of the rising waters of the mighty river. To ensure such a tragedy never occurred again, Congress called upon the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the river by developing a navigation and flood control plan. As the corps built more levees along the Mississippi River, less sediment was distributed into the coastal wetlands. The erection of levees throughout south Louisiana prevents the natural deposit of sediment that builds up the coast line and coastal wetlands (Courselle, 2010).

The wetlands of coastal Louisiana have also come under attack from the Gulf. As the oil industry developed in the marshes and bayous in the 1920s and offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by the 1940s, navigation and pipeline channels were dredged throughout the marshes and wetlands. The canals brought in salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into the fresh water marshes. As a result, marsh grasses and trees began to die off. Roots of the dead vegetation no longer served to hold the land in the wetlands intact. These factors help to increase the rates of land loss and intensify the impacts of natural disasters like hurricanes. Hurricanes hit the mainland harder because they no longer weaken as they come over the marshes and wetlands as they once did. Such occurrences result in stronger hurricane storm surges washing away more of the fragile wetlands (Courselle, 2010).

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster added toxic oil and dispersants into the already fragile wetlands and helped to speed up the pace at which this devastation occurs. The Louisiana wetlands and the cultures that thrive in this region are vital to our national heritage. When the vast natural resources and communities of the wetlands are taken into account, wetland restoration from the damage caused by the BP disaster and continued wetland preservation become a necessity (Courselle, 2010).

Communities of Coastal Louisiana

The Louisiana Gulf Coast is home to a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups. The Louisiana coastal fishing industry for example, is a mixture of Vietnamese, Native American, Cajun, Croatians and Islenos communities (“Louisiana’s traditional cultures”, 2015). The communities have struggled to maintain their cultural identities and livelihoods that deeply connected to environment in which they live in. Forces threatening these vulnerable communities have been at work for decades by impacting their contributions to the massive world market (Doss, McElreath, Goza, Tesiero, Gokaraju, & Henley, 2018). The threats have only increased from the Deepwater Horizon disaster that sent massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands of coastal Louisiana (Buchanan, 2010).


Many Vietnamese came to the United States after the division of their country in 1954. Much of them settled in New Orleans and in coastal regions along the Gulf of Mexico. Here they were able to use their skills as shrimpers and fishermen brought with them from their country. Today, fishermen of Vietnamese origin now comprise about one-third to one-half of Louisiana’s commercial fishing boats (“Racial and ethnic groups”, 2012). Like other commercial fishermen, the Vietnamese suffered hardships from the BP oil spill. With the waters of the Gulf of Mexico closed for fishing, there was no form of income for these people. The language barrier of the Vietnamese fishing communities further increased their problems. There was much difficulty in filing claims to allow them to be compensated for lack of work or to be hired to help with the cleanup efforts (Courselle, 2010).

Native Americans

Many Native American tribes have lived in the Louisiana wetlands for centuries. These tribes include members of the United Houma Nation, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Federation, the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, and the Pointe au Chien Tribal Community. All of these tribes have similar lifestyles and have taken advantage of the resources provided by the Louisiana coast. They live in several parishes along the coast with large populations in Terrebone and LaFourche parishes where they have primarily been fishermen and shrimpers. These groups of people have seen their homelands disappearing from coastal erosion for a very long time. Hurricanes have struck these areas time and time again, contributing to the progression of coastal erosion. The oil spill has only lead to further destruction of the native people’s way of life and culture (Goodman, 2010).


The most well-known group of people to call the Louisiana coast their home is the Cajuns. These were French settlers of Nova Scotia that were kicked out by the British during the 18th century. Many made their new homes in the marshlands of south Louisiana where they could hunt, fish, and trap like they did in Nova Scotia (“Louisiana’s traditional cultures”, 2015). As the group spread out through much of Louisiana their connection to the marsh and swamp has remained. Many still hunt, trap, fish, shrimp, or retain jobs connected to the commercial fishing industry. Others have built hunting and fishing camps throughout the marsh to enjoy these traditional activities for recreation. The impact of coastal erosion has erased much of this lifestyle and tradition due to the marshes getting replaced by open water.

The BP oil spill has hurt the Cajuns in more ways than one. Besides contributing to coastal erosion, it devastated the commercial fishing industry that many of these people depend on for their livelihood. Most shrimpers and fishermen live from season to season with the hopes of good catches to provide them with the income needed to get by. Long term closures of the fishing and shrimping grounds due to health concerns of seafood in the region caused a devastating blow to this community. Many of them were forced to resign from their commercial fishing lives and move to look for jobs elsewhere (Courselle, 2010).


Louisiana owes its commercial oyster industry to the Croatians. There was a mass wave of Croatian immigrants that arrived in Louisiana in the early to mid-1800s and settled in Plaquemines parish (“Louisiana’s traditional cultures”, 2015). Croatian oystermen brought light to the practice of cultivating oysters. This was done by seeding them in beds with ideal growing conditions. This practice produces higher quality, meatier and more flavorful oysters. Even the modern method of harvesting oysters by using a dredge is attributed to Croatian fishermen (Courselle, 2010). These fishermen thrived through all the challenges faced along the Louisiana coast until the tragic events that unfolded from the Deepwater Horizon. The oil spill caused closures of oyster beds throughout the coast of Louisiana. Oysters are stationary creatures and cannot escape the oil filled waters. Oysters filter many gallons of water per day and with that is the intake of oil. The reduction of oyster harvesting in Louisiana causes a chain reaction in the oyster industry. Much of the Croatian community suffered as a result of this (Courselle, 2010).

The Islenos

The Islenos came to Louisiana from the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain. They were recruited to the state to build up the Spanish population and culture after it was sold from France to Spain in 1776 during the French and Indian War. Many of the Islenos settled in St. Bernard parish, just southeast of New Orleans (“Louisiana’s traditional cultures”, 2015). It was here they survived as trappers, fishermen, duck hunters, shrimpers, oystermen, crabbers and alligator hunters. The Islenos community has faced all sorts of challenges. Strong hurricanes and the levee system built by the Corps of Engineers have caused coastal erosion of the surrounding wetlands at alarming rates. The lives and livelihoods of these people depend on the natural resources that the coast provides. It is of upmost importance that the ecosystem is restored in the region to protect their way of life (Courselle, 2010).

BP Disaster Penalties

The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster has been etched into the history books as the worst oil spill to ever occur in the United States. British Petroleum was ordered to pay a fine of $20.6 billion as restitution for the damages caused to the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. The original agreement between BP and the federal government was that BP would pay $18.7 billion but the final number was configured to resolve all civil claims against BP set forth by the Department of Justice and the five states affected by the event (“BP fined a record $20.8 billion for oil spill disaster”, 2015).

BP will pay $5.5 billion of the $20.6 billion to cover penalties sustained under the Clean Water Act. This is the U.S. law that regulates water pollution. Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas will also receive large sums to cover damages resulted by the spill. Louisiana will receive a sum of $6.8 billion over a course of 15 years for receiving the brunt of the damages with the BP oil disaster. Of the payment, $5 billion is to be spent repairing the disaster’s toll on natural resources (Thompson, 2015). A large proportion of the money is going towards coastal restoration and repairing wetlands and damaged wildlife habitats. Apart from this settlement, BP has reportedly spent $28 billion on cleanup and compensation (“BP fined a record $20.8 billion for oil spill disaster”, 2015).

Aside from the fines condoned by the federal government, the people of south Louisiana fought for compensation after the spill. More than 500 lawsuits were filed against the oil giant for damages resulting from the disaster. Files were made by commercial fishermen, sheriffs, local governments, school boards and taxing districts for lost resources and tax revenue (Thompson, 2015). On March 3, 2012, BP announced they had reached an out of court settlement with the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee. BP is to pay $7.8 billion to settle private plaintiffs’ claims for economic loss, property damage, and injuries (“US deepwater horizon explosion”, n.d.). Coastal communities in this region are still struggling to reclaim their economic potentials that had existed prior to the incident (Doss et al., 2018).

Moving Forward

Coastal erosion in Louisiana has received much attention over the last few decades. It is evident that if nothing is done to resolve the issue that the culture, communities and many industries of Louisiana are at risk. The oil spill of 2010 has helped speed of the process of mitigating funds towards restoration projects. Recently, Louisiana State Legislature approved a 50-year plan to protect and restore Louisiana’s coast. On June 2, 2017, the 2017 Coastal Master Plan was passed unanimously through the State House and Senate with unanimous bipartisan support (“State legislature approves 2017 coastal master plan”, 2017).

The Coastal Master Plan was developed through vigorous scientific and technical analysis with extensive public input. The Coastal Master Plan was developed through scientific and technical analysis as well as extensive amount of input from the public. The plan recommends projects that emphasize restoration, structural protection, and nonstructural risk reduction.

The plan will comprise of $25 billion directed towards the creation of marshes, sediment diversion and other types of restoration projects. Such projects are will provide land building benefits of 800 to 1,200 square miles of coast over the 50 year span. In addition, $19 billion will go towards structural protection and $6 billion for nonstructural risk reduction. These projects will reduce expected annual damage by $8.3 billion by its completion. They are expected to pay for themselves three times over the course of implementing the plan (“State legislature approves 2017 coastal master plan”, 2017).

Payments from the BP oil spill will certainly help with getting the momentum going for the restoration projects in coastal Louisiana. Such restoration and risk reduction projects will help to enhance the safety of critical national infrastructure, international trading, and the economy. Many of these restoration efforts will benefit commercial and recreational fisheries, coastal wildlife, and the diverse habitats which enable the citizens of Louisiana to live, work, and partake in the coastal ecosystem (“State legislature approves 2017 coastal master plan”, 2017).

The many ethnic groups that comprise the coastal communities of Louisiana provide the state, as well with the nation, with vast diversity of culture and services that are essential. These people have made the coast home and have worked in this region for hundreds of years. From the taming of the river to hurricanes and the worst oil spill in U.S. history, they have managed to survive through continuous struggles. The futures of these great communities seem bright with efforts now being taken to protect and restore the fragile ecosystems that encompass Coastal Louisiana.


BP fined a record $20.8 billion for oil spill disaster. (2015, October 5). Retrieved from http://www.theverge.com/

Buchanan, S. (2010, May 17). Gulf oil adds to woes of minority fishermen. Louisiana Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.louisianaweekly.com/

Courselle, D. (2010). We (used to?) make a good gumbo- The BP deepwater horizon disaster and the heightened threats to the unique cultural communities of the Louisiana gulf coast. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 24 (19), 19-39.

Doss, D. A., McElreath, D., Goza, R., Tesiero, R., Gokaraju, B., & Henley, R. (2018). Assessing the recovery aftermaths of selected disasters in the Gulf of Mexico. Logistics & Sustainable Transport, 9, 1-10.

Goodman, J.H. (2010, June 1). Gulf oil spill threatens tribe’s livelihood in Louisiana. Miami Herald. Retrieved from http://www.miamiherald.com

Gulf oil spill. (2017). Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved from http://ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill

Louisiana’s traditional cultures: An overview. (2015). Folklife in Louisiana. Retrieved from http://www.louisianafolklife.org/

Racial and ethnic groups in the Gulf of Mexico region: Vietnamese. (2012, November). LSU Ag Center. Retrieved from http://www.lsuagcenter.com

Sediment reduction. (n.d.). Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. Retrieved from https://btnep.org/

State legislature approves 2017 coastal master plan. (2017). Coastal protection and restoration authority. Retrieved from http://coastal.la.gov/

Thompson, R. (2015, July 8). Louisiana to several billion dollars as part of massive BP oil spill settlement with gulf states. The Advocate. Retrieved from http://www.theadvocate.com/

US deepwater horizon explosion and oil spill lawsuits. (n.d.). Business & Human Rights Resources Centre. Retrieved from http://business-humanrights.org/

What’s an estuary? (n.d.). Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. Retrieved from https://btnep.org/

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BP Oil Spill and its Impact on the Ecosystem and Communities of Coastal Louisiana
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spill, impact, ecosystem, communities, coastal, louisiana
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Jeremy Dixon (Author)Daniel Doss (Author)David McElreath (Author)Stephen Mallory (Author), 2018, BP Oil Spill and its Impact on the Ecosystem and Communities of Coastal Louisiana, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/421175


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