Oil: Stories from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

This week, we bring you two stories from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, one from a native Louisianian scientist and the other from a fourth-generation Louisiana fisherman. 

Part 1: Louisianan scientist Estelle Robichaux struggles to deal with the massive oil spill affecting her state while also balancing personal problems.

Jump to Estelle’s story >>

Estelle Robichaux, a native Louisianian, is a senior restoration project analyst at Environmental Defense Fund. A broadly-trained scientist with a passion for wetlands conservation and restoration, Estelle has a background in natural and social sciences as well as extensive experience in science education. Her field and research background spans wetlands, marine environments and wildlife, from Costa Rica to South Africa to South Caicos. Estelle advocates for the implementation of science-based restoration projects and leads project-related efforts for Restore the Mississippi River Delta. Estelle also works on science communication and tracking the development of scientific and research programs in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster.

Part 2: When Lousiana fisherman Robert Campo receives news of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he knows his life is about to change.

Jump to Roberto’s story >>

Robert Campo is the owner of Campo's Marina located in Shell Beach, Louisiana.  He's a fourth generation commercial fisherman and the great-grandson of the late Celestino Campo, the founder of Campo's Marina started in 1903.  He's the grandson of the late Frank Blackie Campo (a true legend) and the son of Frank J. Campo Jr.  Campo's Marina is the oldest family-owned business in St.Bernard parish and it's one of the top ten oldest family owned businesses that still exists today in Louisiana.  He owns and operates his oyster business with two oyster boats and a farm of nearly 1500 acres of oyster grounds.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Estelle Robichaux

So in the spring of 2010, I was deep in the throes of graduate school at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Don’t hate.  And mid-to-late April was finals, so insert bi-annual existential crisis here.  But in all seriousness, I was really enjoying my program on adaptive management of wetlands and watersheds. 

I finished up my regular coursework on April 19th, and the next week, my then-boyfriend and I were headed to England to visit his family.  But before I could close the books on the semester, I still had to write a twenty-page paper, take a final exam and grade a stack of papers like a friggin’ mile high.  That’s just the life of a graduate student, right? 

I heard on the news over the next couple of days that there had been an explosion on an oil rig and there was oil spilling out to the Gulf.  But I knew that once I really started to pay attention to this story I was not going to be able to stop, so I didn’t allow myself to read anything about what was going on.  I kept my head buried in the sand and powered through my end-of-semester work. 

Before we hopped our plane to England, I ended up having a little bit of time to read some news and I read a story about how the oil was moving closer and closer to Louisiana’s coastline.  It was headlined “Feds May Set Gulf Oil Slick Ablaze.”  And all I could think when I read that was, My Louisiane. My Louisiane.

I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that my homeland might be on the verge of possible destruction, that the places where my heart lies, those beautiful wetlands that shaped who I am and what I do so strongly, might cease to exist. 

But I couldn’t wallow.  I still had to pack.  So I swallowed my tears and carried on.  But my grief for the Gulf had begun. 

Our first night in London, we went down to the pub to have a few pints with some of Will’s former colleagues and, knowing I was from Louisiana and my work was on wetlands, one of his friends asked me if I knew anything about this oil spill on the Gulf. 

“Only what I've heard on the news,” I said.  I told them what little I did know and admitted I hadn’t had a lot of time to keep up with the story before out trip.  I told them with the incredulity that only a grad student can possess that I was a little bit in disbelief that they hadn’t figured out how to stop the oil yet because, frankly, oil spills happen on the Gulf all the time.  This friend told me he had read a story that day saying that this could be the largest oil spill ever in the U.S., possibly one of the largest ones ever in the world. 

I don't remember exactly how I responded to that, but, as the magnitude of what was happening began to sink in, I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I was a little embarrassed at my flippancy and that I didn’t know more.  So the next day, we got on one of those big, cushy buses with WiFi, reclining seats, to head up to Oxford, and this was the perfect opportunity for me to really catch up on the news and learn about what was going on.  You know, minimize the chances of sticking my foot in my mouth again. 

So I read a couple of stories about the current situation and, by the third one or so, I started kind of feeling queasy and hot and sweating.  My eyes weren’t focusing really well.  I really didn’t feel good.  Will suggested I might be getting car sick from reading on the bus, but I've never had a problem reading in a moving vehicle. 

But I shut my laptop and closed my eyes and tried to relax.  Calmed down a little bit, felt a little better, but that queasy sick feeling wouldn’t go away until much later.  And this kept happening too, not just over the following weeks but for years.  Anytime I would bring up news about the oil spill, I could read some, but eventually that sick feeling, then sometimes chest clinching and that feeling like you can’t breathe, these feelings that I later realized were minor panic attacks, would just take over. 

About three weeks later, we came back from England and I immediately flew up to D.C. for a two-week workshop called Science Outside the Lab.  It’s a fantastic program through ASU’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes and they bring science and engineering grad students up to D.C. to learn about science policy.  My trip was cut short, though. 

A few days after I got up to D.C., Will, took himself to the hospital with strange chest pains.  The doctors in the ER had a hard time believing that anything could be seriously wrong with the otherwise healthy twenty-nine-year-old, who just happened to have a really spicy curry for dinner that night.  But this pain, which Will had been feeling off and on for weeks, was now constant, and it was unlike anything he had felt before. 

Eventually they ran some tests.  They found that his thoracic aorta, the walls of it had weakened.  For someone his age, the width of this main artery of the body is usually about three centimeters.  Will’s had ballooned out to over five.  He had what is called the ascending aortic aneurism and there was a chance at any moment that his aorta could give way and the aneurism would rupture.  So as the events in the Gulf continued to unfold, as oil continued spewing from the well head, the situation become more and more dire each day, my personal life was turned upside down. 

Will had open-heart surgery on June 2nd.  It was one of the worst and best days of my life because the stress of that day was way worse than anything you'll ever experience in your quals, and the relief and gratitude I felt when I heard the doctor say, “He did great,” was way better than hearing your chair say you passed. 

But despite the successful surgery, he wasn’t fully out of the woods yet.  There was always a chance of a post-op complication and there would be months of recovery even if everything went well.  So while many others, many of you, spent your summers watching the Gulf of Mexico and wondering if it would survive, I was spending my hours and days and weeks wondering if someone I loved would survive. 

And the stress and anxiety of Will’s health crisis was all-consuming.  I had blinders on to everything else for months after that.  And the intense emotions that I felt during that time changed me as a person.  They changed my brain.  I know that so many of you know exactly what I mean because you witnessed the oil spill first hand, or you went through Katrina.  You know exactly what that’s like.  And you know that you, like the people and places around you, will never be the same again. 

Here and there, I would hear about the immediate layer effects of the spill on tourism and wildlife and the seafood industry, but despite the fact that I lived in Florida, I really wasn’t directly impacted by the spill.  And it was strange to be in the Gulf Coast and yet feel so far away from this unprecedented environmental disaster.  But with everything going on in my life, it was really a welcome distance. 

Ultimately, Will fully recovered from his surgery.  A scar running the length of his sternum, which is now held together by titanium wire.  And although we were brought much closer together during that time, we were both changed, and our relationship with each other changed.  About a year and a half after we faced Will’s mortality together, we went our separate ways, and life went on.

So fast-forward a few years.  It’s the summer of 2015.  I've been at the Environmental Defense Fund working on Louisiana Coastal Restoration for about two years in a position that was really created to sort out and make sense of all the different funding streams and entities that had developed in the wake of the spill.  Like any job, there had been a learning curve, ups and downs over the years, positives and negatives, but, all in all, it was a great job doing the kind of work that I had always wanted to do.  At the time, though, I was really in a rut. 

At this point, the BP civil trial had been going on for nearly two and a half years.  The third phase of the trial had just wrapped up in February following a ruling on the second phase that had lowered the maximum possible fines BP might pay.  Even once there was a ruling on the third phase, there was still the possibility of an appeal. 

As for the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, all we knew was that it was going to go on for a long time, possibly five to ten more years of gathering data and doing assessments and studies.  I just felt like we were working so hard to push large-scale restoration forward here in Louisiana and, as most of you know, we need large-scale restoration here like yesterday.  We knew there would be big money for restoration, but we had no idea when and I just didn’t feel like we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Despite all the efforts of the state, of our NGO community, our vocal stakeholders and industries, all the amazing scientists who work on coastal restoration, it seemed like despite all this, we were hitching our horses to a wagon with no wheels.  Without money, large-scale coastal restoration wasn’t going anywhere and, frankly, I was a little depressed about it. 

Then, when all seemed lost, when I was questioning everything we were doing, the global settlement with BP was announced.  Hot dog!  Over thirteen billion dollars for Clean Water Act fines.  I couldn’t believe it.  This totally changed the game. 

Having this money by no means meant that our work was done.  It meant that our work had hardly even begun.  I felt reenergized and excited and focused.  And it wasn’t just me.  I saw it in so many of the people that I worked with.  We had certainty.  We had knowledge.  We knew there would be endless challenges, but we could see the light. 

Everybody knows the old adage that knowledge is power, and it’s true.  But knowledge does not lead only to power.  When we had that certainty, when we knew how much money was coming and when, we were empowered.  And for me, that empowerment after years of grieving for the Gulf and my beautiful Louisiana homeland, that knowledge gave me hope. 

Thank you. 

Part 2: Rob Campo

I’m a fourth-generation commercial fisherman.  I lived an oil spill experience in St. Bernard, Louisiana, and I am the owner of Campo’s Marina, me and my father and my brother.  Our business has been in business for a hundred and seventeen years, so we've been around awhile. 

I come from an Isleños heritage.  That’s what most people are in our parish.  So here goes. 

On April 20th of 2010, no knowledge of any rig explosions or anything, I do what I do most days. I also own two oyster boats and I farm fifteen hundred acres of oyster ground. 

So I leave out Shell Beach, in my oyster boat and I got about an hour and twenty-minute ride to my oyster leases in False Mouth Bay.  I get over there, and I’m getting that way and I’m watching a beautiful sunrise that morning, and I get to my oyster leases and we try to catch a fifty-sack quota a day.  We set ourselves on a load limit. 

So we catch our fifty sacks and we return back to Shell Beach and we unload the boat and head back to my dock, and I was parking my slip and we’re cleaning the boat and everything and I shut it down.  I walk into my truck and I remember my phone ringing.  I was still on a flip phone age back in 2010. 

So I stopped and I grabbed my phone out of my pocket.  I didn’t recognize the number and it was a New York number.  So I was like, “Man, who the hell is this?” 

So I answered the phone, I said hello and it’s Anne Thompson on the phone.  Anne Thompson, if you don’t know who she is, she's from NBC Nightly News.  So she tells me, she says like, man, she's going a mile minute.  So I’m trying to process all this stuff at the same time -- you know, it’s a long day. 

So anyway she says, “Hi, this is Anne Thompson from NBC Nightly News,” blah, blah, blah.  I mean, she's going on and on and on and on about the oil rig blowing up and how is this going to affect your business, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. 

I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Slow down, slow down, slow down.”  I said, “What oil rig blew up and where are we talking about?  What’s going on?” 

She said, “What do you mean exactly?” 

I said, “I have no knowledge of nothing.  None of this.” 

So she goes into telling me how the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in a massive explosion.  Eleven people were still missing and they were trying to put out this massive fire, and it gets worse than that.  She said the pipe that the oil was coming out off just broke off at the surface of the Gulf of Mexico floor.  So this is where my day starts to take a downward spiral. 

So I’m standing there, I remember standing in the middle of the street and the wind is blowing out of the southeast about a ten-miles-an-hour breeze, and it’s blowing right in my face.  So I asked her, I said, “How far off shore is this rig, this oil rig?” 

And she says, “Approximately fifty miles.”  So you do the math at fifty miles, ten-to-fifteen-mile-an-hour winds off the south, we got big trouble in little China. 

So I get home and television is just lit up with this coverage of the oil spill.  So I’m looking at the television and I’m trying to pay attention to the weather, because the weather is the most important thing right now.  And the weatherman says that it’s going to be blowing ten to fifteen miles an hour out of the southeast for the next two weeks.  I said, “Oh, this is not good.” 

So shortly thereafter, she asks… when I was on the phone that time she wanted to do an interview.  She wanted to know if I'd be up to do an interview.  I said sure.  So we did the interview a couple of days later. 

So I’m getting back to this television stuff and all, I’m watching this.  I remember saying this wind coming up the southeast in April was really not unusual because in the month of April, as fishermen, we look for to bring the brown shrimp larvae in and getting them up into the estuaries and that’s how we have our shrimping season, our first shrimping season, May season. 

Well, along comes with the shrimp larvae is coming this oil and, as it’s getting closer to shore, I remember President Obama giving the okay to start spraying dispersant on this oil.  Well, they sprayed the dispersant and they're spraying it from aircraft and airplanes, and God knows other kind of ways they're spraying it out there, to sink this oil.  So in my mind, out of sight is out of mind. 

Well, we started seeing massive fish kills.  A lot of those menhaden, mullet, speckled trout, bull reds, bull drums, and this is going on for miles.  Saw dead sea turtles, saw dead crabs that were full of eggs that was floating with these dead fish, blue crabs.  We saw dead porpoises about three or four feet long.  There was quite a few of them and I said, “Man, this is just depressing.”

So myself and the other fisherman, we want answers.  So we have a town hall meeting in Chalmette, Louisiana.  We have it in Saint Bernard, we have a town hall meeting.  And there's local, state, federal government agencies, there's BP representatives and, I swear to you, it was like a question that would come to these guys sitting up on chairs like this on the stage, they would all be looking at each other and nobody had an answer.  It was kind of like a dog chasing his tail.  It was pitiful. 

So one of the BP reps that was asked said, “We’re gonna make this right.  We’re gonna hire y’all’s boats.”  And so they did.  We stretched out a hundred and sixty feet of boom, oil boom to try to contain this oil from getting into the marshes. 

So we did that.  Put over a hundred and sixty miles out.  And daily, we had to go out with our boats and maintain it.  But due to the tide coming in and the strong winds, the ropes would pop and we had to go put all the stuff back together and it was a nightmare.  Needless to say, it was a nightmare, a real, real nightmare.  And still dead fish.  Every day is dead fish.  Miles and miles and miles of dead fish. 

And being an oyster fisherman, I’m looking at all these dead fish and, so if these fish are dead like this, our oysters don’t have a shot, and they didn’t.  It killed miles and miles of reefs that, after Hurricane Katrina, it was just so full of oysters it was just unbelievable.  The abundance of seafood that we had after Katrina was just, it was mind-blowing. 

And being a shrimper, also I could tell you this because I lived it.  We lost everything for Katrina: houses, business, everything.  But the seafood was there and we knew that we could survive.  As long as we had seafood, we’d survive.  But now, this comes along and all the seafood is dead.  We rebuilt, but we got dead seafood. 

So I'd like to think that I’m a strong person, that I can handle a lot and I can endure a lot, but I tell you, this is wearing me down.  It was getting the best of me.  And working for them every day, I’m seeing this.  I couldn’t do this in front of my crew, but, man, at night it was killing me. 

And this is what happened to the oyster industry.  The combination of dispersant, oil, the river water that they turned loose out of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, I guess it was a combination of all these things.  It’s been nearly seven years, I guess, since this thing happened and I could tell you, I could take you to oyster reefs right now and they still haven't produced an oyster since this happened. 

I don't know why.  I can’t explain it.  Scientists don’t know why.  Biologists don’t know why.  And had it not been for the oyster fishermen that’s in St. Bernard Parish putting out fresh concrete and limestone, we wouldn’t have an oyster industry today.  And what would Louisiana be without seafood? 

So Louisiana is near and dear to me.  It’s in my heart.  I was born and raised on these bayous all my life.  I tell people all the time that I have saltwater in my veins.  That’s what my blood type is, it’s saltwater. 

Again, Louisiana is just a unique spot, unique place to live in.  I couldn’t see myself doing anything else but fishing for a living and I don't know what I would do without being on the bayous every day.  It’s hard to think and it’s hard to process that you might have to go do something else.  It makes you mad and, at the same time, it makes you cry, you've got all this emotions going through your mind. 

One thing I could tell you about Louisiana fishermen is they're very proud people.  They're hardworking, they endure weather that most people wouldn’t even go outside in.  I've been out there and I've done it myself a bunch of times.  But, at the end of the day, and I'll close with this, what makes me do what I do is because Louisiana is home.  The end.