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On October 1, the 5 million barrel Gulf Deepwater Horizon spill finally moves on from emergency response. The rogue well is officially dead. Most of the booms are gone. 87% of the Gulf is open for fishing, and further reopenings are expected. The US government is wrapping up their National Incident Command, and Admiral Thad Allan (who ran the response) will finally get to retire. Lisa Jackson’s Environmental Protection Agency is taking over lead responsibility for the ongoing federal response to the spill, focussing on assessing the damage and restoring the damaged ecosystems. 

It will take many years to understand the total impact of this spill, the largest man-made environmental catastrophe in US history. Beach oiling is expected to recur this winter, as storms roil contaminated sediments. Long term impacts are likely to include:

  1. Reduction in fish stocks.
  2. Human and ecological toxicity of the dispersants.
  3. Dead zone.
  4. Barriers to coastal wetland restoration.
  5. Loss of seafood markets due to lingering stigma. Etc. Etc.
  6. The spill will undoubtedly occupy lawyers, as well as scientists, for many years to come. According to local reporters, six steps doomed the well. Their graphic shows how BP repeatedly made quicker, cheaper and ultimately more dangerous choices in the final hours before the explosion.
  7. The spill has generated a tidal wave of litigation, and much more is likely to follow. Criminal prosecutions are expected against BP, and possibly against the corrupt government officials at MMS who were supposed to regulate it. Congress is considering a rule to earmark any fines and penalties for use in the restoration. Hundreds of civil suits have already been launched, and many more are expected. There is a bewildering array of possible causes of action, from manslaughter and criminal endangerment to killing endangered species, marine mammals and migratory birds, to shareholder derivative suits. Legislative change is also expected.

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