On July 15th, just as this article was going to press, BP lowered a 75-ton cap over the damaged wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico and closed — at least temporarily — the gushing hellmouth of oil. How long that cap will hold is not clear. At the moment, BP and government scientists are trying to determine whether the structure of the well itself was damaged by the blowout, and, if it was, whether oil and gas could be leaking through other parts of the well, or even through the sea floor itself. Depending on the integrity of the well, the gusher could be permanently capped in a matter of weeks; or there could be oil flowing into the Gulf again tomorrow. "This is an extremely unstable situation," retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the federal response to the clean-up, told me on the day the cap was lowered into place.
Capping the well, even temporarily, is welcome progress, but it is not the end of the story. Since the blowout in late April, up to four million barrels of oil and nearly two million gallons of toxic dispersants have been dumped into the Gulf. The clean-up operation will continue for months, but it's mostly PR — only a small fraction of the oil will actually be removed. More important, no one has a clue yet what the longer-term effects of this catastrophe will be: how many dead dolphins will wash up on the beaches, how many local residents will lose their livelihoods, how the complex ecosystem of the Gulf will be altered, or, indeed, what the political fallout will be for the Obama administration. Sorting all that out is a much larger story, and right now, it is just beginning.
— Jeff Goodell, July 21st, 2010
Day 68. That's all the sign says on the wall of the Starfish Restaurant in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Everyone knows what it means: 68 days since the blowout, 68 days of oil gushing out at the rate of 30,000, 40,000, 60,000 barrels a day. Who knows for sure? Nobody trusts BP's numbers. When it comes to the spill, Grand Isle is ground zero. Everyone here has seen the live pictures of the gushing wellhead, the hellish brown geyser a mile deep out in the Gulf. They have smelled the oil, touched it, walked in it, and they know more is out there, coming in with a shift of the wind and tides, killing the shrimp, coating the birds, scaring away tourists. The days tick by, the oil keeps coming. Day 68. On the Louisiana coast, the Deepwater Horizon blowout was the environmental equivalent of September 11th, an event so significant that it rearranges time itself.
Around here, the biggest fear is what happens now that hurricane season has arrived. In the restaurant, diners glance up at the TV, tuned to the Weather Channel, where tropical storms swirl. They have been through them all – Katrina, Gustav, Ike. Each time, they rebuilt. But this time is different. "If a hurricane gets us now," says Jeannine Braud, a waitress at the Starfish, "it will be all over. We will not recover. There will be oil and chemicals and a toxic mess everywhere. It will be the end of this place. It will be an apocalypse."
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