A brown pelican sits on dead mangrove, which was directly impacted by oil from the nation's worst offshore oil spill, off the coast of Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish, La.

A brown pelican sits on dead mangrove, which was directly impacted by oil from the nation's worst offshore oil spill, off the coast of Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish, La. Gerald Herbert/AP

Four Years Later, a Sharp Divide on Gulf Oil Spill

EPA lifted BP's suspension from federal contracts March 13.

The state of the Gulf of Mexico four years after the worst oil spill in U.S. history is as unclear as a marsh soaked with petrochemicals. The state of BP, on the other hand, is powerful and proud, with the British energy giant showing little tolerance for criticism over the incident.

A spate of reports and press releases leading up to the anniversary of the disaster, which took place April 20, 2010, sketch a picture of a region still awash in oil and tar, with fish and wildlife struggling to survive and thousands of people suffering from both economic and physical or mental distress.

Those assessments stand in stark contrast to BP's declaration last week that "active cleanup" is complete and ongoing restoration work "is helping the Gulf return to its baseline condition, which is the condition it would be in if the accident had not occurred."

An official accounting of the spill's impacts won't come until at least next year, when the government completes a Natural Resource Damage Assessment as part of its continuing litigation against BP and its partners over the spill, which released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, according to the government.

The trial in federal court in New Orleans is currently between phases, with a ruling pending from U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier on exactly how much oil leaked from BP's Macondo well. The company argued last fall that the amount was about 2.5 million barrels, while the Justice Department puts the figure at more than 4 million barrels. Once that issue is settled, the final phase of the trial will begin in January to determine what if any fines and penalties should be assessed.

In the meantime, residents of the five Gulf states continue to be bombarded with information about the effects of the spill, much of it dramatic and disturbing. Reports come in regularly about beaches being re-oiled by storms and tar balls washing ashore. Florida officials announced in February that about 1,250 pounds of petroleum waste was found moving through shallow waters off the coast of Pensacola.

Studies by federal scientists, university researchers, and environmental groups have documented deformities in fish embryos exposed to oil, sick and dying dolphins, and hundreds of dead turtles floating in the sea. And a documentary out on Friday, Vanishing Pearls, describes the devastating impact of the spill on African-American oystermen in coastal Louisiana.

The effects on others in the seafood and fishing industries, especially the thousands who helped with the spill cleanup in 2010, are especially troubling. A National Institutes of Health study is tracking 33,000 people who were exposed to the oil and is finding a host of respiratory problems and skin conditions. Others report that fishermen affected by the spill are more likely to have bouts with depression.

As part of the federal case against it, BP agreed in February to a settlement that will compensate as many as 200,000 cleanup workers who can document illnesses related to the spill. The amounts could be as much as $60,700 per individual, in some cases.

But the company has been far less willing to concede the harm done to natural resources, and has lashed out at its critics.

"Despite the numerous signs of progress—from record tourism to a thriving fishing industry and the end of active cleanup operations—some advocacy groups refuse to acknowledge evidence of the region's recovery," BP's Geoff Morrell said in a statement last week. "Instead, they cherry-pick the findings of scientific reports, or blithely mischaracterize them, to support their agendas."

Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, responded: "Four years after the initial explosion, the oil is not gone and it is still having an impact on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has chosen to attack the science and its messengers instead of taking responsibility for restoring the Gulf."

So far BP says it has spent about $27 billion on claims payments, cleanup work, and restoration projects in the Gulf, and it has set aside about $15 billion more in anticipation of fines and penalties. It has also denied billions of dollars in claims that it deemed fraudulent or excessive.

"We have looked to do the right thing by those who were affected by the accident and spill," BP chief executive Robert Dudley said at the company's annual meeting April 10. "But also to do the right thing by our investors when it became clear that the system for compensating claimants was subject to a considerable number of unfounded claims."

After banning BP from new federal contracts in November 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency lifted the suspension March 13 in return for a five-year agreement by the company to make improvements in safety and corporate ethics. Less than two weeks later, a BP refinery south of Chicago leaked more than 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan, the source of fresh water for millions in the region, and howls were heard again about the company's environmental record.

"Time and again BP has shown it can't do business without putting people and wildlife at serious risk," said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "How many more spills will it take for the Obama administration to say enough is enough?"

BP says that at no time has the spill affected drinking-water supplies and that all the oil has been cleaned up. The company was so mindful of its reputation after the incident that it even demanded a correction in a student newspaper at Albion College in Michigan after a columnist wrote that a BP spokesman was not well informed about the Lake Michigan spill.

The company's aggressive posture has served BP investors well. Despite the $40 billion hit from the Gulf spill that has forced it to sell off assets and cut capital expenditures, BP is getting high ratings from analysts and expects to increase its drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico, where it currently has 10 rigs operating. The company recently acquired 24 new leases in the Gulf for $41.6 million, including 11 tracts not far from the formation where the Macondo blowout occurred.

Even BP's former CEO, Tony Hayward, appears to have landed well after being dismissed by the company in the wake of the spill. A London newspaper reported this month that Hayward is likely to become chairman of the commodities giant Glencore Xstrata, while another said Hayward and his predecessor as BP CEO, Lord John Browne, are teaming up on a $281 million drilling project off the coast of Angola.