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.

Dolphins Win Big At Oscars

Los Angeles, California (March 10) – Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony was not just a big night for fashion and entertainment. It also helped to bring light to an environmental topic from the dark ocean depths. The Cove received an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary, an honor which will help bring awareness to the controversial issue of dolphin capture and slaughter.

In The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos takes the viewer to the Japanese coastal village of Taiji and follows as a team of freedivers, activist and filmmakers covertly reveal a cultural practice of rounding up dolphins into a cove, whether to provide dangerously mercury-laden meat or to bring in commercial entertainment dollars as performers. The film also features dolphin activist Ric O’Barry, who trained the dolphins used on the television show Flipper before redirecting his efforts during the last thirty-eight years to freeing dolphins from captivity.

The annual dolphin hunt involves rounding up and harpooning about 2,000 dolphins annually, where each animal can be sold for $500. Japan has defended the practice as a food tradition being conducted in a legal and appropriate manner and questions the scientific determinations reported in the film, particularly concerning the mercury content of dolphin meat and it’s consumption by Japanese children. The village of Taiji has a population of 3,800 and claims to be the birthplace of the Japanese commercial whaling industry.

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Though haunting in its imagery, the film is a well-told story with a purpose to inspire the audience into activism and protection of all graceful and intelligent marine life. The Cove has been recognized for its powerful style and message throughout the year, receiving awards for best documentary of 2009 from Environmental Media Award and National Board of Review as well as a Critics Choice Award and three Cinema Eye Awards in New York. Producers Fisher Stevens and Paula DuPres Presman were also acknowledged by the Producers Guild of America. Furniture maker IKEA even created a special edition ‘Klippan’ sofa cover using The Cove as inspiration after awarding the film the IKEA Green Prize at the Rome International Film Festival.

The documentary’s focus is particularly impactful considering the recent tragic death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by captive killer whale Tillikum. The filmmakers continued their quest to free the dolphins even during the acceptance speech for their Oscar by holding up a banner that read ‘Text Dolphin to 44144’ as a means for the audience to learn about and take part in their cause of discontinuing the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. The New York Times reports that Japan has reacted to the film’s success by threatening legal action. The film only recently gained permission to be shown in Japan in April, where the director hopes that the Japanese people will decide to stop supporting this cultural practice.

Cable channel Animal Planet plans to screen the feature later this year. Plans for a television series version of The Cove are also under production for the network by Mr. O’Barry and his son. The film’s creators continue their activism in the wake of their win, as a March 8, 2010 New York Times article reported the group’s exposure a California restaurant’s illegal practice of serving whale meat. Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump could face $200,000 in fines and a prison time if those involved are convicted of possession or sale of marine mammals in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Congratulations to The Cove creators for their success in both filmmaking and raising environmental awareness. Dolphins everywhere can swim a little easier tonight.

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