Spill: A Vivid Reminder of Lessons Not Learned after the BP Disaster

New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre is hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast and it’s been seven years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing eleven men and starting one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history.  
But Spill, a play written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, makes it seem like only yesterday. The play opens in small-town Texas diner, during an interview with Shelley Anderson.

Pictured: Vince Gatton, Molly McAdoo, Kelli Simpkins, Greg Steinbruner, Ronald Alexander Peet, Maurice McRae, Alex Grubbs, Michael Cullen  Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein

Anderson’s husband, Jason, died on April 20, 2010, when the rig exploded. Fondakowski, the interviewer, carefully documents Anderson’s words. For Anderson, the interview is agonizing.  She remembers her little girl, five at the time, asking if her daddy was dead.
“I’d like to know who’s going to answer to that little girl,” she says in a quiet, steady voice. The question hangs over the theater and she pauses, looks straight into the audience and says, “I want to know.”
Based on extensive interviews with victims’ family members, cleanup workers, fishermen and advocates in the months following the disaster, Spill is a partnership between the Ensemble Studio Theater and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project. The play ran in New York from March 8th to April 2nd.

Fondakowski, perhaps best known for her work on the Laramie Project, weaves together on-the-ground reporting with media accounts, testimony from government hearings and other official documents. A talented team of actors portrays the interviewees, their lines compiled from Fondakowski’s notes and transcripts from official testimony.

Spill doesn’t sugar-coat. The end result is a horrifyingly accurate portrayal of the disaster.
Lillian Espinoza-Gala and Robert Bea, both members of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, tie the scenes together, sharing years of oil industry expertise with the audience.
In Bea’s first scene, he recites the name of each of the eleven men who perished, reminding the audience never to forget. Espinoza-Gala repeatedly emphasizes that they were the best, most experienced crew in the industry.
As the story unfolds, we learn the well, located in the Macondo Prospect in Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (MC252) of the Gulf of Mexico was trouble almost from the start.
In water almost a mile deep, the job – drilling a nearly 3-mile-deep hole into the bottom of the ocean floor – was 47 days behind schedule. At about half a million dollars a day, the “well from hell” as the guys on the rig called it, had already cost BP about $20 million dollars. Pressure was on to finish the job.
From Jason’s father, we learn the tool pusher kept lists that included problems on the rig and questionable steps he’d been requested to take by supervisors. We also learn that like most oil workers, Jason considered the industry to be family. He resisted his father’s pleas to report his safety concerns.
For Jason and others, working offshore had its downside – it was dangerous and kept them away from home for weeks at a time. But it allowed them to provide a good life for their families, something increasingly hard to do without a college degree.
Recalling their last phone call, Shelley said Jason told her he wanted to come home. When pressed for details, all he didn’t elaborate. “The walls are too thin,” was all he said.
Surviving crew members said they worried about erratic pressure readings on the rig, so much so that only hours before the explosion they’d called headquarters in Houston looking for guidance. They ran and re-ran pressure tests, but were not reassured.
They had good reason to worry, said Espinoza-Gala, who said the Deepwater Horizon’s pressure readings should have set off alarms at the highest levels.  “It was like marching into death,” she said, clearly anguished.  
At 9:56pm the lights flickered and the rig exploded into a fiery inferno.
Crew member Mike Williams jumped ten stories from the rig into the water, desperately swimming away from the mangled mess as fire chased him on the oily water.
After struggling to survive the inferno, Williams and other crew members said they were met by a squadron of BP lawyers, held for more than a day and forced to take drug tests.
While they were struggling to survive, BP and other companies involved were scrambling a team of lawyers in efforts to minimize its liability.
Williams and others said they were coerced into signing legal paperwork before company officials allowed to them to sleep, change clothes or call their families.
Family members described the delay as an excruciating hell. Hours passed before they learned if their loved ones were dead or alive.
It was soon clear that BP was grossly under-estimating the of the amount of oil gushing out of the well head. They had no idea how to control their spewing well.
As Espinoza-Gala said, it was certainly not the first tragic accident or the first time a well blew in the Gulf of Mexico. But it was “the first time nobody knew how to put it out.”
Bea said BP’s efforts to plug the well -- including efforts to plug the gusher with golf balls and other debris -- appeared at times to be just for show, hopeless efforts he likened to “putting a box of raisins into a river.”
Advocate Jonathan Henderson, who flew out over the disaster zone, described a fiery, other-worldly scene as BP tried in vain to burn off the thousands of barrels of oil that spewed each day into the warm Gulf waters.
Cleanup worker Jorey Danos described being sickened by a combination of oil and dispersant while working in the VOO – or Vessels of Opportunity -  Program. With the Gulf waters closed to fishing, the VOO program was devised by BP to put out-of work fishermen to work cleaning up oil.
Danos, said dispersant-spraying planes flew over cleanup boats, coating crew members with chemical dispersants and a loud hissing sound filled the small theater to represent the nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersant BP sprayed over the Gulf to sink the oil.
BP maintains dispersant stopped the oil from reaching Louisiana’s marshy shores. Others contend it did little more than sink the oil out of sight and sicken fishermen, coastal residents and cleanup workers
As the play continues, we learn cleanup crews spent hours dragging boom through the oil, often with little or no protective gear. As Danos shows how he and others pulled up oily boom, the audience can almost feel the the brown, slimy mess as it splashes and drips, covering the boat and workers with oil.  
It took 87 days for BP to finally figured out how to kill the well. Today, much of the government-estimated 4.9 million barrels still sits on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Spill ends without telling us that we’re any safer or even what we've learned much from the disaster, maybe because there's not much to tell.

In fact, a separate look through a series of government reports indicates little has changed.
Formed in 2011 after the reorganization of the Minerals Management Services (MMS), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) is in charge of reviewing drilling permits, inspecting offshore rigs and production platforms and developing safety standards and regulations. Prevention of another Deepwater Horizon-type disaster hinges on effective oversight of oil and gas drilling.

But reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a Congressional watchdog, have raised questions about BSEE's ability to provide needed oversight.
The GAO found the bureau continued “to rely on pre-Deepwater Horizon incident policies and guidance for managing its investigative capabilities and did not have the capability for analyzing data on incidents that occur on the Outer Continental Shelf.”
While the report notes BSEE at one time began taking steps to improve, the bureau has been “hindered by limited leadership commitment,” has not addressed staffing shortfalls, has not completed policies and procedures to for enforcement actions and has “reversed actions taken to address post-Deepwater Horizon incident concerns, weakening oversight of operator compliance with environmental standards.”
None of that’s likely to change under the Trump Administration.
The EPA, challenged even then to respond to the BP disaster, is slated for a 31% reduction in funding. According to a document leaked last month, the proposed reduction includes the elimination of the Gulf of Mexico program, the elimination of environmental justice programs and budget cuts to criminal enforcement and oil spill prevention programs.

In March, the Department of the Interior announced 73 million acres of the Gulf will be up for grabs in an August 2017 lease sale. President Trump recently signed executive orders undoing many climate change protections and calling for regulation reform.

As directed by one of the orders, the Department of Commerce solicited public comments on federal regulations related to domestic manufacturing, which includes the oil industry.

Among the first to submit a comment was Robert J, Stout, Vice President and Head of Regulatory Affairs for BP, who advocated for the elimination of certain Environmental Impact Statement requirements, a less restrictive interpretation of Clean Air Act preconstruction permits and lessening restrictions in the Gulf of Mexico leasing program.

The play –- like real-life -- is a vivid, in-your-face reminder of lessons not learned.
In one of Spill’s last scenes, Shelley Anderson said she constantly wonders if there’s something she could have said to prevent Jason from going out that day.
“We both knew it would be the last time we saw each other,” she told Fondakowski over coffee back at the Texas diner. “Why didn’t I say don’t go.”