Burning the Midnight Oil – Another Ecological Disaster for the Gulf of Mexico

So my heart is almost stopping from all the news of unconstrained oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the recently downed oil rig. A blast (as far as I know, no cause has been released) downed the rig last week. 11 workers are still missing. 42,000 gallons a day are seeping out of open pipelines and with the difficulty presented by working in such deep ocean depths, it’s not likely to stop anytime soon. There were several “fail-safes” built into the design of the rig, but all failed leading to the current disaster. According to CNN, the approaches BP, the company which owns the well, are taking are as follows:

“To seal the leak, three approaches are being tried.

BP is using remote-controlled submarines to activate the well’s blowout preventer, a steel device the size of a small house that sits atop the well and is intended to choke off the flow of oil in the event of a disaster. It’s not clear why that device didn’t originally act to cap the well, or if it will be of any use in the future.

BP also is bringing in another drilling rig that could seal the well, but that effort would take months, according to a company spokesman.

In the meantime, BP also is trying a novel approach to capture the oil — using a dome right above the well head. The dome resembles an inverted funnel, with a pipe leading up to ships waiting at the surface to capture the oil. That tactic has never been tried in deep water before.

A BP spokesman said the dome should be ready in two to four weeks.”

The slick, which has been photographed by NASA, is slowly drifting towards environmentally sensitive areas of the Louisiana coast. The Coast Guard appear to be unwilling to wait the weeks it may take BP to address the problem and are preemptively planning a burn today of portions of the slick in order to halt some of its progress towards shore.

The Gulf of Mexico has always been a severely impacted area, at least in environmental terms. The Gulf hosts massive hypoxic (low-oxygen) zones where few organisms can live. These fish kill zones are due in large part to the fertilizers and excess nutrients washed into the Gulf by rivers and run-off – the nutrients stimulate overgrowth of algea which are broken down by oxygen-consuming bacteria. This recent oil disaster has the potential to severely impact local ecology. According to the Huffington Post:

“Aaron Viles, director for New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group, said he flew over the spill Sunday and saw what was likely a sperm whale in the oil sheen.

“There are going to be significant marine impacts,” he said.

Concern Monday focused on the Chandeleur and Breton barrier islands in Louisiana, where thousands of birds are nesting.

“It’s already a fragile system. It would be devastating to see anything happen to that system,” said Mark Kulp, a University of New Orleans geologist.

The spill also threatened oyster beds in Breton Sound on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Harvesters could only watch and wait.

“That’s our main oyster-producing area,” said John Tesvich, a fourth-generation oyster farmer with Port Sulphur Fisheries Co. His company has about 4,000 acres of oyster grounds that could be affected if the spill worsens.

“Trying to move crops would be totally speculative,” Tesvich said. “You wouldn’t know where to move a crop. You might be moving a crop to a place that’s even worse.”

He said oil and oysters are not a good mix. If the oyster grounds are affected, thousands of fishermen, packers, processors might have to curtail operations.

Worse, he said, it’s spawning season, and contamination could affect young oysters. But even if the spill is mostly contained, he said oil residue could get sucked in by the oysters.”

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