TIME Environment

What Caused the Worst Oil Spill in American History

Big Spill
Cover Credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS GRAYTHEN - GETTY IMAGES. INSET: AP The May 17, 2010, cover of TIME

The Deepwater Horizon spill started on April 20, 2010

Five years ago Monday, when there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the first news reports said that nearly a dozen people had been killed by the blast.

Before long, however, it was clear that the impact would continue to be felt, and by many more people. The oil spill that began that day and continued into the summer would end up being the worst such accident in U.S. history, spilling millions of gallons of crude into the fragile waterway. How it would be cleaned up remained a mystery, one that is still being answered today.

Another mystery, as TIME’s Bryan Walsh explained in a cover story shortly after the spill began, was what had actually happened on that fateful day:

Investigators are still exploring exactly what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, but the catastrophe seems to have been the result of a cascading series of failures–and too little oversight. Rigs are equipped with blowout preventers, 40-ft.-high (12 m) stacks of machinery with multiple hydraulic valves that are designed to seal a well should anything go wrong. Crew members on the Horizon couldn’t activate the blowout preventer, and a deadman’s switch that should have kicked in when control of the rig was lost failed as well. One safety feature the Horizon did not have is an acoustic switch, an additional backup that can activate the blowout preventer remotely. Regulators don’t mandate them in the U.S., though they are effectively required in nations like Brazil and Norway.

When the rig sank, the riser–the pipe that runs from the wellhead to the surface–fell as well, kinking as it did and causing three breaks, from which thousands of barrels of oil are leaking each day. “There were multiple chances to stop this,” says Malcolm Spaulding, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. “And they all failed.”

Read the full cover story, here in the TIME Vault: The Big Spill

TIME Crime

More Than Two Environmental Activists Were Killed Each Week in 2014

US-PERU-ENVIRONMENT-UNREST
Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images Diana Rios Rengifo, the daughter of one of the four indigenous Ashéninka leaders murdered in the Peruvian Amazon in early September, speaks during a ceremony in New York on Nov. 17, 2014

A majority of deaths were tied to disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business

The killing of environmental activists jumped by 20% in 2014, with at least 116 deaths around the world tied to disputes involving land and natural resources, the London-based advocacy organization Global Witness claimed this week.

“[That’s] almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period,” its report said. “Disputes over the ownership, control and use of land was an underlying factor in killings of environmental and land defenders in nearly all documented cases.”

According to How Many More?, the majority of deaths took place in Central and South America; Brazil topped the list with 29 cases followed by Colombia with 25.

Global Witness dubbed Honduras as “the most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist,” where during the past five years 101 individuals have been killed in relation to their advocacy work.

The organization urged governments across the globe to take bolder measures to tackle the issue ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference that will be held in Paris later this year.

“Environmental and land defenders are often on the frontlines of efforts to address the climate crisis and are critical to success,” said the report. “Unless governments do more to protect these activists, any words agreed in Paris will ultimately ring hollow.”

TIME Environment

Millions of Jellyfish Invade Pacific Northwest Beaches

Jellyfish are washing up on shore in Oregon and Washington

Beach-goers beware.

Millions of jellyfish are washing up on the shores of beaches in Washington and Oregon, CNN reports.

It is not unusual for the bluish-purple species called Velella velalla to turn up in the spring, but a sail fin on their body usually keeps them away from the shore. This spring, though, their sails were no match for the wind.

The species, also known as “purple sailor,” has stinging cells that are not seriously harmful to humans, but the Oregon State website warns it’s best to avoid rubbing your eyes after touching them or walking barefoot through them on the beach.

TIME Environment

Will California’s Drought Mean More Expensive Jeans?

California is a big producer of high-end cotton

Drought and water shortages could push California’s cotton acreage to its lowest levels since the early 1930s, and that could become a problem for yet another industry that the state currently dominates—high-end apparel manufacturing.

California accounts for most of the U.S. production of an economically important, high-end type of cotton called Pima. A reduction in the crop could spell trouble for the local apparel makers—many of them in Los Angeles—that are already bracing for the state’s first mandatory water reductions.

“There’s going to be some major impacts into our company, primarily as a result of the water problems that…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

 

TIME Environment

North America May Have to Live With Bird Flu For a ‘Few Years,’ Says Top USDA Vet

A flock of turkeys at a Minnesota poultry farm
Bethany Hahn—AP A flock of turkeys at a Minnesota poultry farm

No quick end to the outbreak

A leading agriculture official has forecast that North America’s bird flu outbreak could last for some time.

“It’s something in North America that we may have to live with for a few years,” the USDA’s chief veterinary officer John Clifford told lawmakers in Minnesota.

The state is the area of the U.S. hardest hit by the disease, detecting bird flu on 26 turkey farms. Bird flu has also been found in Wisconsin, South Dakota and others.

A Minnesota House committee voted unanimously Thursday to allocate nearly $900,000 to help combat bird flu, which has afflicted 1.6 million turkeys in the state and become an economic blight for its almost $1 billion turkey industry.

No cases of human infections have been reported so far.

TIME Vatican

Vatican to Host Summit on Climate Change

Pope Francis leads general audience in Vatican City
Baris Seckin—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Pope Francis arrives at St. Peter's square on April 15, 2014 to lead his weekly general audience in Vatican City, Vatican on April 15, 2015.

The move is part of Pope Francis's environmental strategy

The Vatican will host a summit on climate change and sustainability efforts later this month, officials announced on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will give the opening address of the “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity” event, and faith and science leaders will give speeches and participate in panels. The goal of the summit is to highlight “the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people—especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations,” according to the Vatican’s website.

The summit is part of a larger effort by Pope Francis to bring the Catholic Church into the conversation about sustainability and the environment. The Holy See will write a papal letter to bishops this summer about the Vatican’s position on climate change—a fitting mission for a Pope whose namesake, Francis of Assisi, is the patron saint of the environment.

TIME Environment

Meet The Man on a Mission to Preserve the World’s Coldest Places

Polar adventurer Eric Larsen spends his life in pursuit of the world’s coldest places. In 2006, he completed the first-ever summer expedition to the North Pole, and in 2010 he completed a world record expedition to the North Pole, the South Pole, and the top of Mt. Everest—all in one year. In 2014, he completed what he believes will be the last unsupported expedition to the geographic North Pole… ever.

Larsen documents each of his adventures, and sees his expeditions as a way to educate the rest of the world about the changing climates of the places he travels to. He hopes to spread the word and raise awareness about these coldest of places, before they are gone for good.

TIME Environment

Obama Administration Plans New Offshore Drilling Rules to Prevent Oil Spills

The goal is to prevent disasters like the BP oil spill

The Obama Administration is planning to announce new safety regulations for offshore oil and gas drilling to help prevent a major explosion like the one that caused the BP oil spill, according to a report.

The announcement is expected to coincide with the disaster’s five-year anniversary later this month, the New York Times reports.

The new regulations would likely tighten safety requirements on blowout preventers. The devices, seen as a last line of defense, malfunctioned and failed to stop the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010.

Read more at the New York Times.

TIME Environment

The Brief: Who Is Using Up California’s Water?

Three sectors gulp up most of the Golden State’s water supply

California is stuck in one of the worst droughts in its history. In response, the state—which consumes more water than any other in the U.S.—is cutting back on water usage by 25% under a new plan from Gov. Jerry Brown.

While the Golden State isn’t completely out of water, it’s still using far more than it can replenish.The three biggest consumers are urban users, big agriculture and water allocated to environmental conservation. But who uses the most, and where is it all going?

TIME Environment

California Could Become a ‘Dust Bowl’ Like 1930s Oklahoma

Dry earth is seen between rows of grapevines in Napa, California
Elijah Nouvelage—Reuters Dry earth is seen between rows of grapevines in Napa, California April 9, 2015. The state is in the fourth year of one of the worst droughts on record.

Thousands of families were forced to leave areas around Oklahoma because of drought and bad farming. Many went to California

As California enters a fourth year of drought, it’s possible that the state could experience conditions like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

At a presentation by the Assn. of California Water Agencies, climatologist Michael Anderson said, “You’re looking on numbers that are right on par with what was the Dust Bowl,” the L.A. Times reports.

In the 1930s, drought and bad faming methods destroyed 100 million acres of farmland around Oklahoma and forced families to leave, many for California. Their journey was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The organization raised awareness about the impact on the state’s farmers, who have seen a loss of $1.5 billion due to lack of water for cultivating their crops.

[L.A. Times]

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