Retelling the Story of the BP Oil Spill

25:41 minutes

Actors in a scene from “Spill.” Front row: Vince Gatton, Molly McAdoo, Greg Steinbruner, and Ronald Alexander Peet. Back row: Kelli Simpkins, Maurice McRae, Alex Grubbs, and Michael Cullen. Credit: Gerry Goodstein

Spill, Leigh Fondakowski’s 2015 play about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, opens and closes with the wife of one of the 11 men who died at the start of the crisis.

“Sometimes it feels like the whole world just moved on without you, but you just can’t move on,” says the actor playing Shelly Anderson, wife of Jason Anderson, who was the most senior rig worker to die.

[How to talk about climate change with a denier.]

The play follows the events and mistakes leading up to the spill, the disastrous aftermath, and the end of the legal proceedings against BP. It’s based on years of interviews with people like Shelley, other rig worker family members, and residents of Gulf Coast communities touched by the spill—now categorized as the worst offshore oil spill in United States history.

After debuting two years ago in Baton Rouge—to an audience that included Shelley Anderson and others directly touched by the Deepwater Horizon disaster—the play is now running in New York City until April 2. Fondakowski talks with Ira about the stories of loss, both human and ecological, that she heard as she was writing.

Segment Guests

Leigh Fondakowski

Leigh Fondakowski is the playwright and director of Spill (debut 2015). She’s based in New York, New York.

Larry McKinney

Larry McKinney is executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at  Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What do you remember most vividly about the BP oil spill in 2010? Is that the pictures of the oil covered Gulf of Mexico? The live camera on the sea floor showing that gusher of hot oil from the broken well? Maybe the tar balls on the beaches, or the oil covered birds, or the sense that no one knew exactly how to stop this thing. Or did you forget that there were 11 men who died on the Deepwater Horizon when it first exploded?

Well, a new play making the rounds would like to remind you of that last one as well as all the rest. Spill spends its entire first act dramatizing the factors that led to the explosion, and the workers who were on board the rig when it exploded. And it reminds the viewers that this environmental catastrophe started with a very personal disaster for those workers and their families.

So the show is playing in New York until April 2nd at the Ensemble Studio Theater. And you may get to see it elsewhere some day. We’re hoping that a Science Friday bump may give other plays– gives us other places a chance to watch it. Leigh Fondakowski is writer and director of Spill. She spent hundreds of hours interviewing Gulf Coast residents, rig worker family members, and other folks to write this documentary play. And she’s here in our studios at Science Friday. Welcome to Science Friday.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: I want to ask our listeners– tell us what was on their minds during the disaster. And please, you can phone us at 844-724-8255, 844-Sci-Talk. Or tweet us @SciFri. Now I know that you’ve done other documentary plays.


IRA FLATOW: What made you gravitate to this one?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Well, tragedy seemed to be my specialty as an artist. I did a documentary play about the death of Matthew Shepard in 2000. And one about the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in 2005. So I got a call from Wesleyan University after the BP oil spill asking me to teach a class with a scientist, the head of their environmental studies program, Barry Chernoff. And Barry and I were to take a group of students down to the Gulf. And I would teach them my interviewing methods and he would teach them the science. And then we would bring them back and they would make art from what we had discovered.

And a play was not really in the cards. I thought I was just going to simply teach the class, but once I got down there– I had never been to southern Louisiana. I’d never been on the Louisiana Bayou. It’s an epically beautiful place. You know, you’re driving in a boat and there are pelicans flying within arm’s reach and dolphins swimming next to the boat. And then you turn the corner and you see these massive oil rigs all along the horizon line. One of the interviewees called them like mosquitoes on the skin.

And I had never encountered a place where oil and nature coexisted like this. And that the cultural identity of the Bayou was about oil as much as it was about nature. And that’s what hooked me to want to go down there and listen to stories and write a play. I thought there was an American play in that place.

IRA FLATOW: And you interviewed the rig worker families, and you spent more than three years collecting data and writing the play.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I did. At first I really thought that the focus was going to be about the environmental catastrophe. You know, the unstoppable spill sort of captured the national imagination, this thing that technology couldn’t fix and couldn’t stop. And so I really thought that that was going to be the story.

But the more I talked to people and got to understand a little bit more about the industry and these people’s lives and how dangerous it is, I got hooked into a whole other aspect of the story and began to talk to the rig workers’ families. So I made a drive from Louisiana to Texas many, many times over the course of three years.

IRA FLATOW: And you paint a pretty damning picture of BP’s culpability for the disaster. But one character in the play also notes the hypocrisy of being upset about the spill while also consuming gasoline at the rates that Americans do. We’re all culpable. Is that what you’re saying?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I hope that people leave the theater thinking about that. In the United States alone, we use 20 million barrels of oil a day. And there was five million barrels spilled in the BP oil spill. So that’s four times the amount every single day in the United States. So I do– I mean, the play is sort of inviting a broad discourse on the subject. But I do hope that people leave the theater thinking about their consumption and their relationship to these events.

IRA FLATOW: The explosion– and you sort of walk us through all the steps that happened during the explosion– leading up to it, the aftermath of it. How much– I mean, it was shocking. It seems like fiction. Facts are stranger than fiction. Did you actually have to embellish anything for this?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: No. I did not have to embellish anything. One of the most staggering things in the play is that BP’s vice presidents of Drilling and Completions were on board the day of the explosion. And they were out there to congratulate the crew of the Deepwater Horizon on their safety record– that they hadn’t had any accidents in seven years. And they went out there to give them a big event.

And so they’re having a dinner and they’re celebrating this crew’s achievements when, literally, the rig is about to blow up in just a matter of minutes. And you could never make that up. That’s something that actually happened.

IRA FLATOW: And do you feel that as an artist, as a playwright, you can recreate that story for us, make us feel more about it, about the science, about the politics, about the families better than any other method?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I think art does something interesting. I think art puts a human face on the disaster. And I think when artist is good, it kind of transcends polarizing political discourse or isn’t overly didactic but really invites people to empathize and invest in people who are quite different from them, who they maybe would have prejudged walking in.

I know I made some assumptions when I went down to Texas to meet the rig workers’ families. I, one, was 100% convinced that they would be against drilling after losing their loved ones. And I was quite shocked when they said, no, we have to keep drilling. We have to continue to drill. And to see how invested they were and how complicated this issue was for them was quite eye opening.

IRA FLATOW: Now I’m sure there were many challenges how to make this feel real on a small stage. It’s one of the smaller stages in New York. But I was really– I loved how the actors use these extension cords that you had them drag out on the floor and then simultaneously make it sound as they moved– swept them on the floor back and forth. We hear the waves. That was genius.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I’m so glad you said that. I have to give some credit to my set designer, Sarah Lambert, who’s been on this journey with me. But you know, the actors had to spend several days in rehearsal crawling around on the floor with cords. So they were not as maybe appreciative of this investigation. But in the end, it was quite beautiful. And it was through their experimentation with those chords that we discovered that they sounded like water. And then we discovered that they could also be waves. And then we discovered that they could come to embody this event of the oil hitting the shore, which was quite a devastating event down there to see it eroding the marshes and covering the wildlife that’s so sacred to them.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the message you want people who come to see the play to take home with them?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I want people to walk away knowing, in their hearts, that there isn’t an easy answer to the situation that we’re in. There are billions and billions of people who are going to be demanding more and more energy in the next 20 to 30 years. And how do we do it safely? And how do we do it affordably? And I think that there are no easy answers to that. But I think acknowledging that we’re all in this conundrum together is a very important first step.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think you may be reopening some wounds as people come to watch this?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I think most of the people who were interviewed in the play have seen the play in other incarnations. But I think it was very, very difficult for them to relive it when they came to see it. But I think the audience response at EST has really been one of incredible generosity and open-heartedness. And people seem extremely invested and extremely moved, which is a great privilege as an artist to have people really invested in listening to your work.

IRA FLATOW: You know, the play– virtually all the play takes place on the rigging, on the rig itself, as opposed to the environmental disaster that’s surrounding it. Why did you focus so much putting it on the rig, the drilling rig?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Again, it was about this juxtaposition between oil and nature. So I wanted to put the audience into this place. And then at the end of Act One, all the pipes, and mesh, and chains, and things that we use in this small theater to give an impression of the rig, it all falls apart. And so the second act takes place inside the wreckage of the blowout. And again, we have these cords that come in and start to represent nature and I think a pretty brilliant video design also that embodies the natural elements. And I really wanted to show those two things coexisting onstage.

IRA FLATOW: You did it very, very well. Very, very effective. The way the actors changed their personas of their characters. They threw a hat across the [INAUDIBLE], whatever. They were very effective in creating that drama.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: They were a great ensemble. I mean, there’s a mysterious alchemy to creating an ensemble. And we got it with this group. They’re really amazing. An amazing group.

IRA FLATOW: I want to expand our conversation a little bit and bring on another guest since we also want to talk about the current state of the Gulf of Mexico seven years after the disaster. Where has the most damage been seen? How well has the Gulf healed? What kind of restoration work is underway? Dr. Larry McKinney is a biologist and Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. That’s at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi. Dr. McKinney, welcome to Science Friday.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Thank you, Ira, good to talk with you. I’ve enjoyed your discussions with Leigh very much.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, have you seen the play?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: No, I’ve not had the chance to see it. I’ve looked at all the YouTube parts of it and kind of a vision that I think it’s– one thing I really appreciate is, of course, the science base. It seems to be really well based in the science. So Leigh did a good job with that for sure.

IRA FLATOW: As I said, it’s been seven years since the disaster. We were worried about a lot of things back then– the fisheries, the wetlands, the dead dolphins. And the birds, and the oysters, and the seafood. The general, I guess, health of the Gulf Coast residents. Can you give us a thumbnail of where we are today? What is the state of the Gulf and all those different factors there?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, I think if you think of the Gulf as a series of quick cycles, and medium cycles, and long-term cycles, I think that’s what we’re seeing. Those types of species that we think of are the commercial species that turn over very quickly. They seem to have come back very rapidly. But for those long life things like turtles, and our sperm whale, and dolphins that have long lives, they’re still in the middle of this. And we may not know for another 30 or 40 years where the impacts are. So unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag right now. The Gulf took a significant impact from that. And as resilient as it is, we’re not there yet.

IRA FLATOW: Leigh makes the point in the play of pointing out that only 25% of the oil was recovered and that the other 3/4 of it has gone someplace. What about the deeper, less visible part of the Gulf? It’s a mile deep there. What do we know about the–


DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: I’m sorry, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: No, go ahead. No, go ahead.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: I was saying a good part of that oil is sitting on the bottom. And we know it’s there. And of course, the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, a mile deep, is like a refrigerator. That oil is going to be there. And some of our scientists that have worked on it think that it will be perhaps 20 to 30 years before that oil is out of reach of those animals that live there. So we’re going to be dealing with it for a time.

IRA FLATOW: Now I know you were expecting a faster recovery five years ago. What changed?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: The Gulf is a much more complex place than we even imagined, even those of us who have worked on it almost 50 years, like myself. We just didn’t know enough about how all these things work. Particularly, the deep Gulf. So I think that’s what we’re finding out. We’re used to working with a very thin layer of the Gulf, up on the upper 100 feet or so and on the coast. So things happen very quickly there. It’s a very dynamic, warm system. So things turn over quickly. It’s not like Alaska, for example. But the Gulf has it’s deep and dark places, too, and that seems to be the case.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m talking with Larry McKinney and Leigh Fondakowski about Leigh’s new play called Spill at the Ensemble Studio Theater. And Larry McKinney talking with us about the state of the Gulf. You’re leading an effort, Dr. McKinney, to develop a report card for assessing the health of the Gulf over time. Why don’t we already have something like this?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, that was the question that I asked myself as the spill was going on. And people like yourself and others were calling me up and saying, well, how healthy is the Gulf, anyway? And what will be the health– what’s the health now after the spill? And we’ve never had a good, objective answer. So our goal is we have to have a baseline. We have to have something to compare from. And so we want to establish that now. So going forward, if other things happen, and they can– be it natural or man made– we want to be able to tell where we’re going.

Plus, we’re about to spend $18 billion to try to restore the Gulf from the funds coming from the oil spill. So we want to make sure that those monies are invested wisely and as we learn, we improve. So that’s the report card.

IRA FLATOW: Leigh, you’re sitting here nodding your head to all these things.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Yeah, I just think it’s amazing that– just the question that you posed about why didn’t we have a report card before this? So I just think it’s quite stunning that we can’t even give an answer to what is the health of the Gulf before and after.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Exactly. I was going to say, Leigh made a really profound statement. I thought that she really gets the Gulf when she said at the beginning of the interview that it’s this kind of a mixed place where there’s both oil and nature. And we often say that the Gulf is a place where both the economy and the environment coexist but often contend. And obviously, Deepwater Horizon was a huge contention. She hit that right on the head.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. She looks like a smart woman.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Well, I think that one of the things that happened when we went down to talk to people is that there was this real assumption that the two things coexisted in harmony. And when this happened, you saw that belief system begin to fracture and fissure. And people really begin to question, wow, what are we doing here? Is this really safe?

IRA FLATOW: Are there benchmarks, Dr. McKinney, that we should look at, like the seagrass, the oysters, the birds? Is there going to be a progression that would tell us about the recovery?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well of course, that’s what we’re trying to put together in the report card. And we are picking out what we’d call those kind of iconic species. And you hit them right on the head– seagrass; pelicans, perhaps; dolphins. We want a mix of those types of indicators, as we would call them, across the Gulf so that if we track them all, we’ll be able to look at the rapid-cycling organisms, and the long-cycling organisms, and then the system as a whole. So it’s going to be a mix of those things that we’re going to identify and put as part of the report card.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, we have the things we don’t know that we don’t know about.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Exactly. And the Gulf is full of those.

IRA FLATOW: What are some of the biggest unknowns that you about.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, the biggest one is just how connected is the deep Gulf with the shallow Gulf? What’s the connection there? We know a little bit about that, but does energy move back and forth between these things at any kind of rate that we can measure easily? If it does, that means that oil can spread here and there. So that’s the biggest question, I think.

IRA FLATOW: Can the Gulf handle another disaster like this?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, it can certainly handle it. But it could very well be different when it comes out of it. The Gulf is one of the most resilient places I’ve ever seen. And that’s part of the problem. We’ve all come to take for granted that whatever we throw at the Gulf it can take it. And as we know, that’s not always the case. If you take a rubber band and keep stretching it and stretching it, at some point, it will quit snapping back. And so the critical thing for us is, can we discover that point where it doesn’t snap back before it happens and we can’t do anything about it?

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’re going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about this with Dr. Larry McKinney, biologist and Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M. And also going to talk with Leigh Fondakowski, writer and director of Spill at the Ensemble Studio Theater playing until April. And we’ll take your calls, 844-724-8255. Don’t forget that. You can also tweet us @SciFri. We’ll be right back after this break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the BP oil spill in 2010, looking back on the disaster’s human and ecological toll and checking in on the Gulf of Mexico’s recovering. And we’re talking about it now because Leigh Fondakowski is a writer and director of a new play here in New York called Spill. It’s at the Ensemble Studio Theater here up until April 2nd. We hope it goes around the country. Dr. Larry McKinney is also with us. He’s the Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M.

And we’ve got a tweet in that’s kind of interesting. And Collin [INAUDIBLE] tweets, if you haven’t already mentioned, today is the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. We knew that. That’s why– [LAUGHTER] of course we knew that.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Of course you did.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Larry, did people learn anything from that? Do you study that spill when you look at the Gulf spill?

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, yes, as a matter of fact. And one of the things that we found out was that we didn’t learn enough from that spill. And what we did learn, often, we didn’t keep track of so we could have used it in the Deepwater Horizon spill. One of my scientists worked on that Exxon spill. He was in charge of shoreline assessments for the State of Alaska. And even today he gets calls for data that he collected that they can’t find any place else. So one of the things we’re making sure that happens with this spill is that whatever we learn will be available to everyone in the world, in case we have to deal with something like this again. Which we hope we don’t, but we may.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to San Francisco. Stu, welcome to Science Friday. Turn off your radio down, a little bit. Yeah, go ahead.

STU: Yeah, it’s off. How are you doing? So I got a question and it actually segues with the comment just now about the Exxon Valdez. I know that in connection with the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Cosco Busan oil spill up here in San Francisco there’s been a lot of good work looking at the effects of Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbon on larval fin fish, in particular herring. But I know that there’s also been some work by NOAA related to, I believe, tuna in the context of the deepwater spill. So my question is, has there been similar work or is a similar work being done looking at whether there are analogous effects on sea mammals, in particular dolphins and the like? And whether some of the same kinds of effects and interactions between Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons and sunlight, for example– whether that’s being looked at in connection with sea mammals and whether we’re getting any information in that regard?

IRA FLATOW: All right, good question. Let’s find the answer. Dr. McKinney, any–

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, your caller sounds like he knows more about it than I do.

IRA FLATOW: We have smart callers.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: It’s an excellent question. And the answer is yes. There’s been an extraordinary amount of work and analysis, particularly with dolphins. And the impact of all this on our marine mammals, all together. But dolphins are the ones that had the most work. And my short answer to that is yes. That is being looked at in part of this business. But there’s been so much of that work out there that we still don’t have it all out yet. There is a great concern. Part of it is because there’s been some natural events that were occurring– some natural mortality events that were occurring before the spill and after this, confounding ability to analyze it. But it is being looked at very closely.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s go to Oklahoma City. Mark, welcome to Science Friday.

MARK: I have a question for the playwright.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

MARK: I would assume that she saw the– I think 60 Minutes did at least one, if not two reports about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. If she saw those 60 Minutes reports as well as the movie, Deepwater Horizon, and her opinion as to what 60 Minutes and Deepwater Horizon movie got right or conversely, what they left out that she may have been able to supply in her depiction.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s– Leigh?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Yeah I did see– I don’t remember seeing both 60 Minutes, but I saw the 60 Minutes that featured Mike Williams. And that character is a character in Spill and that’s also the main character the Deepwater Horizon movie follows. So the movie follows the guys who survive. And our play follows the guys who died. So we do have some of those survivor narratives, but our main focus is on following the families and the 11 men who died. The 60 Minutes we used as a resource in our research of the play.

I have to be honest and say I haven’t seen the film. But from my understanding from the families, they were very respectful of the stories and honoring the men, staying true to the facts. But I did hear that BP is the leaseholder of the well. But Transocean does the drilling. And they were arguing over a test– a negative test just hours before the blowout. And the BP man said, the test is good. And the Transocean man said, oh, I agree. I think the test is good. And then they called Houston– and then the other BP man came on and said, I think the test is not good, and I think there’s a problem here. And so they called Houston and then the BP guy in Houston said, OK, fine. It’s good enough. Let’s just move ahead.

Well, in the movie they kind of made it a little less complicated, where the BP guy on the rig is saying the test is good. When, in fact, the BP guy on the rig was saying the test was bad. So I think our version, the true version– the truth is actually more complicated because they were disagreeing about the tests and they had no answer. And they were seeing an anomaly that they couldn’t explain. And in the movie they kind of just streamlined it to make it a little easier on the viewer, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s another way of telling Houston we’ve had a problem here.


IRA FLATOW: Larry, let me ask you– Larry and Leigh– a lot of money, funding recovery, research, and restoration. We know that it comes from BP itself and the $20 billion legal settlement. Has BP done enough to make up for its errors, Larry? Let me ask you first.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Well, I would say that the funding that has come out of the settlement that go both to restoration and to science has gone through an extensive process to make sure it’s focused on the very highest priorities. And I have to– full disclosure, I’m doing part of that work so I have that particular bias. But it certainly has lined out to make best use of those funds and that was the court settlement and we’re moving forward with it. And it’s been an incredibly tragic event and unfortunate, but it has given us the opportunity to address some issues even beyond the oil spill for the future health of the Gulf of Mexico. So that, I think, is where we need to focus.

IRA FLATOW: And Leigh, last question to you because we’re running out of time. You went out of your way in your play to focus on the death of these 11 men on the rig. Do you think people have forgotten? Are they forgotten in this history?

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: I think that the narrative of that unstoppable spill quickly overtook the narrative of the 11 men. And so the play tries to put both narratives out there because the story of this oil spill includes those 11 men.

IRA FLATOW: Great play. It’s called the Spill, based here in New York at the Ensemble Studio Theater. Got to get tickets quickly. It’s only playing for another week and then, hopefully, it hits the road. Leigh Fondakowski, writer and director of the play. And Dr. Larry McKinney, Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi. Thank you both for taking time–

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: Thank you so much. Great conversation.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

DR. LARRY MCKINNEY: Thank you, Ira. I appreciate it.

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