Two years after BP oil spill, major issues remain

On this day, the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and the beginning of the worst oil spill and environmental disaster in American history, the country remains ill prepared for another offshore oil well blowout. Plus, a comprehensive Gulf of Mexico recovery plan remains mired in negotiations and politics, and billions of dollars in fines against oil giant BP await settlement.

This week the presidential commission that investigated the BP oil spill reviewed its recommendations from last year, finding insufficient progress in prevention measures, drilling technology and federal regulations. The country cannot afford to be lulled into complacency over drilling safety with the passage of time and political pressure. Though the odds of another disaster are long, the threat persists -- a risk we must address.

The April 2010 Gulf of Mexico catastrophe took the lives of 11 rig workers and unleashed a torrent of oil -- 200 million gallons over several agonizing months of failed attempts to plug the leak.

Fears of spoiled beaches and economic calamity extended to Manatee County. Although the region escaped beach damage, tourism and other businesses suffered from misperceptions. To date, Manatee has accounted for more than 2,100 claims against BP with payments totaling $31 million. Manatee claimants should unite against BP, both to maximize pending unpaid claims and as long-term protection against a future disaster.

The environmental toll continues to surface. Last month alone, scientists conclusively showed that BP oil turned a once bright and colorful deep-sea coral community a few miles from the well into a dead brown and dull mess -- a "graveyard of corals," one biologist noted.

Disturbingly high numbers of dead dolphins have washed ashore. Scientists found dozens of seriously ill dolphins in a Louisiana bay devastated by the oil spill, including some racked with cancer.

A variety of other diseased marine life has been found. Oyster beds took a beating. Biologists are discovering indications of damage throughout the marine life food chain.

While BP has paid billions to clean and restore beaches, coastal marshes and marine habitats, researchers will be monitoring the environmental impact across the Gulf for decades to come.

A biologist recently uncovered one of the most troubling aspects of the environmental damage. Armed with an ultraviolet light, he found tiny bits of oil and chemical dispersant clinging to the legs and arms of a beachgoer who had showered after entering the surf. The skin can absorb the toxins. At this point, the potential public health threat is unknown -- and unnerving. This alone demands immediate research to learn the extent of the danger.

As the federal government negotiates a settlement with BP for environmental damages and penalties under the Clean Water Act, more money must be directed to a long-term scientific monitoring program of the Gulf and research into the consequences of the oil and dispersant.

A broader restoration program should be implemented, too, one that rehabilitates past poor practices that have damaged the Gulf's fragile ecosystem. The health of this ecosystem is vital to the country, primarily as a source of a third of the seafood consumed by Americans.

Despite new federal standards designed to lower the risks inherent in offshore drilling, the presidential commission found that the federal government has yet to adopt rules on the design and safety of blowout preventers. Such a device failed on BP's well.

Other drilling equipment also must be redesigned to eliminate weaknesses and then tested by the government to ensure compliance.

Federal inspectors should take control of enforcing all standards instead of allowing the industry to retain responsibility over many, with the government relying on rig operators to maintain safety.

There are many more lessons yet to be learned from this disaster, particularly on the environmental side. Meanwhile, oil rig safety and oversight must be improved.