Gulf Gusher Tentatively Plugged, Residents Left With Oily Sludge and Distrust

Guest Blog | August 9, 2010 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

BP and government officials state that the “static kill” procedure used to stop oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for over 3 months is a tentative success as of Friday, August 6th.  On Aug. 5th, crews pumped cement down into the blown-out well in hopes of securing a permanent seal.  This seal, however, is not the final step to ensuring that the leak caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off Louisiana on April 20th is stopped for good.  Over an estimated 170 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf making this disaster 5 times more destructive than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

An 18,000 foot relief well that BP continues to drill will be the “ultimate solution” to end the disaster caused by the blown-out well says BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells.  The relief well will intersect with the blown-out well just above the reservoir; cement will be pumped into the relief well and the “bottom kill” procedure will be complete.

While news that the leak may be permanently stopped in the next few weeks seems positive, Gulf residents are not celebrating; they are disgusted and left with the scars of epic destruction to the Gulf ecosystem.

Where Did the Oil Go?

Mother Nature didn’t suck it up and spit it out” – George Barisich of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance

picture-2 The National Incident Command that assembled a number of expert scientists to quantify the amount of oil released from the Deepwater Horizon disaster released a report on Wednesday.  This report claims that 74% of the oil that has gushed out of the well since late April has either been skimmed, burned, dispersed or  has ‘disappeared’.  This report would have people believe that a ‘mere’ 26% of oil remains at sea (just below the surface) or onshore.  Dispersed oil, however, doesn’t just magically disappear.  Only a fraction of the millions of gallons of oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico rose to the surface.  Most of the oil remains dissolved (by the dispersant, Corexit) or has made its way to the depths of the Gulf, systematically contaminating fragile marine ecosystems along the way.  An interactive image (snapshot shown on right) from the National Resources Defense Council provides an opportunity to comprehensively see into the full water column, the effects of the Gulf disaster.

The federal report has been met with skepticism and disgust as workers remain busy scooping oily sludge out of wetlands, washing oiled wildlife with hopes of saving them and scrapping beaches.  Gulf residents like Joey Yerkes a fisherman in Destin, Fla., say they continue to find oil and tar balls in places that have been declared clear or clean.  Sightings of oily ribbons on beaches is not in contradiction with the federal report.  Scientists acknowledge that there may be unknown quantities (on the order of millions of gallons) of oil buried underneath layers of sand.  The fear is that the brown sludge is merely covered up and can be released at any time.

The Cover-up Crime of the Century

Interestingly, the majority of media seem to focus on the hype of the success of the “static kill” and impending “bottom kill” efforts to stop the leaking oil and ignore observations of “giant kill zones” in the Gulf and the toxic aftermath of the oil and the chemical dispersants used to ‘hide the oil’.  Reporters like Jerry Cope and Charles Hambleton of the Huffington Post are calling this cover-up “The Crime of the Century“.  These reporters spent recent weeks touring the Gulf Coast to see if things truly are “getting back to normal”.  What they found was exactly the opposite.  Once vibrant coastal communities are essentially now closed for business and the entire region is contaminated with chemical dispersants of unknown quantities and depths.  Chemical dispersants have made Gulf waters “iridescent greenish yellow” (see photo below, left) as far as the horizon.  Where has all the life gone?  In one of the most biologically diverse and abundant marine regions in the world, there are virtually no signs of life, with even fleas missing on area dogs and mosquitoes mysteriously absent from a typically buggy region.

vesselthroughdispersantThere are reports of “death gyres” (a gyre is a circular ocean current) where the carcasses of marine animals such as dolphins, whales, turtles, rays and fish accumulated.  Media, scientists and the public were kept from these sites and camera-restrictions and no-fly zones were established.  Many people believe that most of these carcasses were removed to keep the true impacts of this disaster hidden.  According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report only about “4,100 birds, 670 turtles, 70 sea mammals, and 1 snake have died in the Gulf since April 20 (assuming 50 percent mortality of live animals)”.  Some scientists believe that this is an astonishingly low number, considering that one of the largest pods of sperm whales in the country resided miles from the spill site and the sheer bio-abundance of the region.  To add insult to injury scientists report that the Gulf’s “dead zone”, whose low oxygen levels can literally smother marine life, is the largest on record (7,722 square miles).

To truly understand the breadth and depth of the efforts to keep the truth from the public on the extent of wildlife impacts, watch this compelling and heart-breaking video interview (scroll down) with marine toxicologist Dr. Riki Ott.

Devastation to Unfold for Generations

At a town hall in Orange Beach, Alabama last Wednesday, the vice president of BP, Kris Sliger, told citizens what he considered to be great news – the well is tentatively plugged.  According to reports, there was no applause or cheering only a long line of upset business owners desperate for answers on how they are to survive.

If you look at it from BPs side or the governmental side, hey, everything is rosy and shiny and all that sort of stuff. But no, that’s not true. The reality is we got a huge problem here and we don’t know how long its going to last or how were going to survive it. – Donald McDonald, Charter Boat Captain

In addition to the potential irreversible damages done to coastal communities  likely to unfold for generations, understanding the true impacts of this marshspilldisaster to entire ecosystems could take years.  The timing of the spill coincided with turtle nesting season, fish-spawning season and migratory bird season.  Scientists say although the short-term impacts of the spill resulted in thousands of dead animals, the long-term effects of the spill will last generations.

The news that BP finally has a handle on the blown-out well is unquestionably long overdue and promising.  However, the damage has been done and for many communities and ecosystems this nightmare is far from over.

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