When oil started spewing from BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, I was working in Miami. My job had to do with Everglades restoration projects. As the oil kept coming, and coming, with no end seemingly in sight, I remember some co-workers starting to worry that it would reach all the way around the peninsula to us… The magnitude of the event still amazes me. The spill has gone down as the largest unintentional oil spill in history: 210 million gallons of oil plunged into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.
While we were all watching horrific images of the growing plume, and sea life covered in oil, there were many other repercussions that were less easy to photograph. Some came from the spill’s solid waste. The latest data I could find (April, 2011), stated that over 106,000 tons of solid waste from the spill went to 11 Gulf landfills. The waste included things like oil balls, pieces of the boom used to contain the plume, and other oily debris. Just the boom alone, which was used as the main tool to contain and absorb the oil, was approximately 2,000 miles long, more than twice the length of the California coastline.
Two interesting aspects of this story jumped out to me.
First, the waste didn’t seem to be handled very carefully. As the oil debris was not classified as ‘hazardous’ waste, the debris was disposed of along with regular MSW. However, the EPA acknowledged that the debris could contain the carcinogen benzene, among other toxic substances. Of the 9 landfills originally approved by the EPA as dumping sites for the waste, at least 3 had been previously cited with toxic breaches resulting in contamination of nearby groundwater. These breaches were believed to come from leaks in the underlying liners.
We visited one of the receiving landfills, the Magnolia Landfill in Summerdale, Alabama. At the time of the spill Magnolia was being investigated as the source of acetone and arsenic contamination in nearby groundwater. While impacts from disposal of the oily debris in MSW landfills could take years to show up, disposing of the debris in landfills already suspected of leaking doesn’t seem to make much sense.
In addition to this, the waste was dumped disproportionately near communities of color. The selected landfills spanned 4 states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. In these states only 26% of coastal residents are people of color. Yet 85% of the waste went to landfills near communities with disproportionate populations of African Americans (as reported by Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center, April of 2011).
Only one of the 9 designated landfills was eventually able to put a stop to receiving more waste from the spill. This was the Pecan Grove Landfill in Harrison County, Mississippi where 71% of residents are white.
These stats may simply reflect the fact that landfills in general are all too frequently sited near communities of color. But here’s an interesting anecdote: residents in Spring Hill, Florida – a community where 94% of the population is white – were shocked to learn that their town’s landfill had been chosen as a disposal site for spill waste. Luckily they found out that the EPA had made a typo – they meant to write Springhill Regional Landfill in Campbellton, Florida where 60% of residents are African American.
I’m writing this post as if the spill is over. While the well has been capped (mostly?), ramifications of the spill continue to this day. The New York Times continues to update their ‘topics page‘ on the spill with news articles every day about the continuing ripple effects. I’d highly recommend it if you are interested in learning more.