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Environmental Questions Persist in Post-Spill Gulf

December 31, 2010 at 4:12 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: As the year comes to a close, we get the latest now on one of the year’s major stories — the massive oil spill along the Gulf Coast.

It began with a blast. BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, about 41 miles off Louisiana’s coast, exploded April 20th, killing eleven and injuring seventeen.

At first, BP and U.S. government officials said they didn’t know the extent of the spill and were slow to raise alarms about it. But within weeks, estimates of its size climbed from 42,000 gallons to as much as 2.4 million gallons gushing daily into the water.

The spill fouled wetlands and coated wildlife, affecting shorelines from Louisiana to Florida. Chemical dispersants were used to break up the oil, creating cloud-like plumes beneath the surface. Local residents’ anger and distrust mounted, as fisherman and others feared for their livelihoods.

MAN: I’m concerned what happens to this industry! I’m concerned he goes and gets clean shrimp, he goes and gets dirty shrimp. How do you know what the hell is going to happen?

MAN: Let me make another point.

MAN: You don’t know, man! We don’t know!

RAY SUAREZ: There was also criticism of the president’s tone, and the government’s response, something President Obama himself echoed at a May press conference.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every day I see this leak continue, I am angry and frustrated as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Then-BP Chairman Tony Hayward pledged early on to seal the well and cover the costs of the spill. But as multiple efforts to stem the flow failed, public opinion of Hayward plummeted. His performance came under fire at a congressional hearing in June.

MAN: Are you trying to tell me you have not reached a conclusion that BP really cut corners here?

TONY HAYWARD, CEO, BP: I think it’s too early to reach conclusions with respect, Mr. Chairman. The investigations are ongoing.

RAY SUAREZ: Yet, just a day later, Hayward was pushed aside. His replacement, Gulf Coast native Bob Dudley, told the NewsHour he’d take full responsibility.

BOB DUDLEY, CEO, BP: We’re there for the long term.

RAY SUAREZ: The largest oil spill in U.S. history released more than 205 million gallons of oil. The well was capped July 15th and finally declared dead by September.

Under pressure from the Obama administration, BP set up a $20 billion fund to compensate victims. This month, the Department of Justice announced it was joining civil lawsuits against BP and the other companies, and will investigate possible criminal charges. Even after much of the oil has dissipated, questions remain about the lasting environmental effects of the spill and the dispersants used.