Concerns Mount Over Growing Gulf Oil Spill

GULF OF MEXICO, April 27 – An oil rig that exploded and sank off of the coast of Louisiana last Thursday has reportedly been leaking 42,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion.  Original reports concluded that the oil was not leaking despite the sinking of the rig, but two leaks were discovered approximately 5,000 feet below the water’s surface on Saturday. 

Fireboats battle the Deepwater Horizon fire on April 21, 2010  Photo: uscgd8

A robotic vehicle unit has been dispatched to attempt to seal the leaks by manually instituting a blowout preventer that failed to prevent the oil from escaping broken pipes.  National Ocean Service Acting Assistant administrator David Kennedy, who was science coordinator during the 11-million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez cleanup, stated that the leaks were difficult to discover because they are so far below the surface and because the primary concern of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)  and the Coast Guard had been search and rescue operations for any survivors of the initial explosion.  The initial explosion occurred on the rig on April 20, sending 126 workers into lifeboats.   Eleven workers from the rig are still missing and are presumed dead.

Oil rigs are common in the Gulf of Mexico  Photo: NOAA

The oil spill is currently 600 miles wide and subject to wind direction.  As of Monday evening, the winds had changed direction away from land, pushing the oil back towards the former location of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was about 53 miles south of Venice, Louisiana.  Oil was not expected to directly impact the coast for at least three days.  As the oil interacts with the coastal environment, impacts on the ecosystem can affect fish, turtles, sea mammals and birds and coral reefs.  Commercial impacts may affect the shrimp, crab, mussel and oyster populations.  If the oil leak remains unsecured, the impacts will increase in range.  In addition, ships are attempting to skim oil from the surface when weather conditions allow.  Aircraft are applying oil dispersant and provided aerial assessment.  NOAA will continue to monitor weather and tidal activity to anticipate the oil trajectory and impact.  Several sperm whales were spotted in the area but were unaffected by the spill.  Similar oil leaks can persist for months if uncontrolled, as the oil is emptying out of a large known reservoir.  A recent similar spill in Australia leaked for ten weeks before being controlled.

Coast Guard deploying oil boom  Photo: EPA

BP Global, the company leasing the rig, has revealed plans to drill wells to relieve the oil pressure if the flow can’t be plugged.  The company is also investigating a dome to contain oil directly from the well.  These solutions could take up to two months to implement.  Over 1,000 BP employees are working towards containment of the spill.  The coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida are readying thousands of feet of boom, a floating tube designed to absorb the oil, to protect fragile and economically important coastlines.  Efforts by underwater vehicles have been hampered by the difficulty of performing maneuvers such as turning valves at a depth of 5,000 feet, a repair which has never been attempting at such depth. 

Oil spills have lasting ecological effects  Photo: marinephotobank

The oil emergency has caused growing political attention.  President Obama has recently introduced federal plans to increased oil exploration off of the American coast.  The dangers of deeper drilling are being debated against the dangers of closer proximity to shore.  In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the distance is giving the coast time to prepare but the depth has hampered repair efforts.  Lawmakers are also questioning the safety regulation on Gulf rigs.  Senators from New Jersey and Florida wrote to the heads of the Energy and Commerce committees calling for a separate agency to oversee rig safety, which is now the responsibility of the Mineral Management Service (MMS).  MMS also runs rig lease sales.

The oil spill could affect the surrounding marine community for years or potentially even decades into the future.  The area contains four endangered turtle species.  The Gulf is also one of two hatchery sites for endangered bluefin tuna.

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