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Five Years After BP Spill, Questions Linger in the Gulf

Half a decade after a BP oil spill devastated the Gulf of Mexico and its wildlife, some still are struggling.
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/ Source: NBC News

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster that claimed 11 oil workers and left the Gulf of Mexico slick with crude, what remains are questions.

Why are the harvests from public oyster grounds so meager? Why have more than a thousand dolphins been stranded in the northern Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon blew up (95 percent of them dead)? Is there a connection to the oil spill? Why has the number of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle nests nosedived in the last two years? Does it have to do with the fact that the turtles swam and ate in the same waters polluted with oil, in what was the biggest spill in U.S. history?

Monday, on the fifth anniversary of the BP oil spill, 10 new restoration projects were proposed to help restore valuable habitat along the Gulf Coast by bolstering wildlife and making it easier for people to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Totaling $134 million, the plan drafted by BP and the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees includes projects to restore habitats for ospreys and other birds, protect sea turtles and rebuild fish populations.

The vast majority of the 135 million gallons of oil that tainted the water, marshes and wildlife five years ago is gone. What is left shows up in tar balls and tar mats, unwelcome and environmentally hazardous reminders of the disaster that no one along the Gulf coast has forgotten.

Scientists are looking for answers and many of them are expected to be included in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment that is still underway. It will determine the harm that was done and what needs to happen to bring the Gulf back to pre-spill conditions.

“Although we will not know the full extent of the damage until a final assessment is completed, response and recovery efforts are ongoing, and scientists say our habitats and ecosystems are slowly coming back,” Governor Bobby Jindal said in a statement on Monday. “However, there is more work to do as oil continues to wash ashore here in our state –- and we won't stop working until our coast and wetlands are fully restored."

What we do know five years later is that the Gulf and her people are resilient. They took this punch and came back. Business may not be as good as before the spill, but they are still in business. They are still trying.

I met Louisiana businessman Matt O'Brien a few days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010. He proudly showed me the shrimp dock he was building in the tiny fishing community of Venice. And he kept building that dock, even as the fishing was shutdown.

"I am a warrior" he told me at the time. "You got to be. I mean, what's the alternative? Quit? Then that's a 100 percent guarantee you fail.”

O'Brien, a former oilman who lost an earlier business to Hurricane Katrina, didn't succeed with his shrimping venture. He says his partners bought him out. He was forced to sell his trucks and move his family to Mississippi. Years later, he says he's trying again, hoping to start another seafood business.

While there are questions about the oysters, dolphins, turtles and so much else, what remains in abundant supply along the Gulf is determination and hope.

As we consider the environmental and economic impacts of the spill on Monday, please take a moment to remember the human toll, the eleven men who lost their lives: Adam Weise, Dewey Revette, Gordon Jones, Karl Kleppinger Jr., Keith Blair Manuel, Ron Wyatt Kemp, Shane Roshto, Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, and Stephen Ray Curtis.