By Sidney Shapiro, Associate Dean for Research and Development, University Distinguished Chair in Law, Wake Forest University School of Law. Shapiro is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR).
It's been nearly a year since crude oil from deep beneath the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, under lease to BP, began to surge into the Gulf of Mexico, in what would turn out to be the beginning of a three-month polluta-polluza. Rather like the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, the prospect of such an oil well blowout in the Gulf was regarded by industry and regulators as extremely unlikely. At least in the Gulf, that meant that planning for such a catastrophe was given low priority - too often a mere paper-pushing exercise. When the all-but-impossible turned out to be all too possible, it laid bare a string of failures that helped make the disaster happen, complicated clean-up, and now, 11 months later, is making it difficult for the victims and their surviving family members to recover damages from BP and its contractors.
For the 126 workers on the Deepwater Horizon that night, the sounds and images of those failures must have been terrifying beyond imagining. Eleven of them didn't make it home alive, and another 17 were severely injured. The rest escaped in lifeboats or by jumping into oily seawater while a fire raged overhead. Nearly three months later, after an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, the damage spanned hundreds of miles of shoreline and thousands of square miles in the Gulf. Clean-up efforts continue to this day, and will for some time, although oil along the bottom of the ocean is unreachable.
The BP Oil Spill was not just a really unlucky break, as the oil industry would like us to think it was, but was the product of corner-cutting by industry, with the tacit approval of government. If the agency then called the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had been serious about its job of reviewing safety plans to make sure they would work, BP might never have gotten approval to drill. But that wasn't how MMS worked. It saw its role as helping to keep the oil flowing, not making sure that BP and the rest of the industry took their safety obligations seriously.
There were other regulatory failures, as well, and a number of Member Scholars from the Center for Progressive Reform meticulously documented them in our October 2010 report, Regulatory Blowout: How Regulatory Failures Made the BP Disaster Possible, and How the System Can Be Fixed to Avoid a Recurrence. But there's another failure, an ongoing failure, at work in the Gulf as well, one that's making it harder for the victims of the BP Spill - the survivors, the relatives of those killed, businesses and employees who lost their livelihoods as a result of the damage, and others - to recover.