Deepwater Horizon Anniversary Stirs Fear of Alaska Spill


The anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico carries special significance for Alaska's Arctic Ocean. As industry and government look to expand drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, many Alaska Natives who live along the nation's northernmost coast worry about what an oil spill would do to the ocean they call their garden.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, setting into motion the largest oil spill in the nation's history. It took 87 days to cap the well, and by then, almost five million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. It will take years for scientists to determine the true costs of the disaster to wildlife and fisheries.

Unlike the Gulf, the proposed drilling sites in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are in some of the most remote areas on Earth. Simply getting equipment and trained personnel to an Arctic spill would be difficult, given the region's lack of major airports, ports and roads. Shifting sea ice, sub-zero temperatures, extended periods of fog and frequent storms with strong winds could shut down spill response altogether.

Yet the stakes couldn't be higher. For the indigenous communities along the U.S. Arctic Ocean, marine mammals and fish make up as much as 60 percent of their diet. The marine environment does more than feed their bodies; it is the heart and soul of their culture.

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"It is the center of our lives," says Point Hope, Alaska resident Steve Oomittuk.

Even a moderate oil spill could devastate the fragile food webs that support ice seals, walrus, polar bears, bowhead whales and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the United States.

The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe showed us the consequences of lax oversight and inadequate response capacity, even in temperate waters near population centers. It's no wonder, as our video shows, that Alaska's Arctic communities fear for their garden.