Gulf oil spill could happen again

Could it happen again? That may be the most frequently asked question on the one-year anniversary of the nation’s largest oil spill. Yes is probably the best answer. But there is reason to hope the response to a similar incident would be better.

Eleven workers were killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and caught on fire 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. It took nearly three months to finally stop the gushing oil. By then, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had escaped, damaging the local ecosystem and crippling the region’s fishing and tourism industries.

Investigators said a blowout preventer failed after the initial explosion because a bent piece of pipe jammed the mechanism. But the preventer design approved for future wells is the same as the old one, which is one reason why it’s easier to be more optimistic about the response to a similar disaster than its prevention.

At least the oil companies say they have developed a new oil-containment system that should stop the flow from a similar spill in a fraction of the time. That’s due to a new Interior Department mandate for such equipment to receive a permit for gulf drilling.

Of course, some blame the Interior Department for the Deepwater Horizon accident, saying it was too cozy with the oil industry to adequately monitor oil-rig safety. Since the tragedy, the agency has imposed tougher rules, but unless Congress makes the regulations law, they could be changed in a subsequent administration.

Congress should also act on a proposal to dedicate a substantial portion of the Clean Water Act penalties resulting from the spill to restoring the gulf coast’s environment and economy.

A coalition of groups, including the National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, says the oil spill damaged 50 percent of the region’s wetlands, 60 percent of its sea grass beds, and 50 percent of its oyster reefs.

A study by a Louisiana State University professor further shows that the spill led to the loss of 13,000 jobs in the region and an additional 19,000 jobs nationally. A moratorium on deep-water drilling was lifted in October, but only 10 permits have been issued, so oil jobs remain hard to find.

That has led to other daunting statistics, including an increase in patients with mental-health problems related to joblessness. Domestic violence has also spiked in some Louisiana parishes, yet another legacy of a disaster that no one wants to see repeated.