Weather hampers expanding oil spill clean up as Obama heads to Gulf environmental disaster

Publish date: April 30, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK/NEW ORLEANS – Weather continued to hinder efforts to fight a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, as the BP oil company finally fessed up that the extent of the leak, which began on Earth Day after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, may be as much as five times worse than originally thought.

The White House announced that President Obama will head to the region Sunday to observe clean-up efforts first hand. The spill according to US environmental observers, has all but killed passage of the US climate and energy bill over its provisions to Republican interest – particularly bill co-author Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina – in including offshore oil drilling in the legislation.

Further headaches are emerging over the use of chemical dispersants that are extremely damaging to human and animal health, prominent US environmentalists told Bellona Web. And politically, the spill might turn out to be the last dance for US climate and energy legislation.

“This is a game changer for politics in Washington,” drilling expert Richard Charter of Defenders of Wildlife told Bellona Web in a telephone interview.

“They should not have included off-shore drilling in the climate bill. The day BP had the oil blow out is the day the climate bill had a blowout,” said Charter, a foremost expert on marine biology and chairman of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

“The climate bill is DOA”

Strong 25-knot winds and rough seas with swells reaching as high as 10 feet have prevented skimming and burning operations designed to reduce the slick. Meanwhile, more than 200,000 gallons (757,082 litres) of crude oil a day are spewing unchecked from a deepwater well where the offshore platform exploded and sank 130 miles (209 kilometres) southeast of New Orleans.

The oil has begun to penetrate the wetlands, perhaps the most vulnerable of geographic victim, but the weather had hampered tamping down that seepage.

Fears also have surged that if the spill is not contained and the underwater well continues to spew unstopped, the slick could grow so large that it may be sucked with the so-called loop current onto the Eastern Sea Board of the United States. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have already declared states of emergency.

The slick is expected to make shore in Mobile, Alabama today, and along Florida’s west coast tomorrow. It has already hit Mississippi and Louisiana.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge arrived in New Orleans today to monitor events.

From 5,000 to 26,000 barrels a day

BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, Doug Suttles, said on Thursday that estimates from the US Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put the rate of leakage at 5,000 barrels a day – a figure the government and US media have largely stuck with.

But Dr. Ian MacDonald of Florida State Univeristy released today a new spill-size estimate based on the US Coast Guard Aerial overflight map of the expanding spill that was taken on last Wednesday that fixes that estimate at closer to 26,000 barrels of oil a day.  

MacDonald’s research of the map indicated there was a total of 8.9 million gallons (33,690,166  litres) of oil floating on the surface of the Gulf four days ago. The official estimates for the Exxon Valdez spill is 11 million gallons (41,639,532 litres).

MacDonald’s estimates propose that by the end of Saturday, 12.9 million gallons (48,831,814 litres) will have leaked from the gulf spill.

Traditional containment methods faltering

Because of the weather, traditional cleanup techniques such skimming oil from the surface of the water and using small boats to position booms to corral the fuel have been temporarily put on hold while BP has been trying more experimental techniques that are causing environmental outcry.

BP spokeswoman Marti Powers, stationed in Venice, La, said that robot submarines sprayed a relatively small amount of the dispersant on the oil Friday evening, and observed it working. The chemical breaks oil into particles, which then sink to the ocean floor where it is eaten by various organisms there, Powers said.

Powers said it was unclear how much the technique would help in the cleanup because it has not been used to deal with a well 5,000 feet below the surface.

“We are literally trying new things here,” she said.

Some 142,000 gallons (529,928 liters) of chemical dispersants have already been deployed, and another 68,000 gallons (193,056 liters) that are still available have come from all over the world – constituting one third of the world’s dispersants resource – said Defenders of Wildlife ‘s Charter.

This was also confirmed to Bellona Web by John Curry, a BP spokesman.

But the dispersants – which typically contain highly toxic 2-butoxyethanol, or 2-BE –  being used is bound to come back to haunt BP, the Obama Administration and the EPA.

2-BE is a solvent used in natural gas extraction, which researchers say causes the breakdown of red blood cells, leading to blood in the urine and feces, and can damage the kidneys, liver, spleen and bone marrow of humans.

It is likely, said Charter, that the dispersants are from the brand family of Corexit, but Curry could not confirm that. Curry also could not confirm that the chemical dispersants – which bind with the oil on the surface of the water and sink it to the ocean floor – had not outlived their shelf lives because they have poured in from reserves all over the globe.

Dispersants, old or not, are highly toxic and could have lethal impacts on those who are working to clean up the Gulf spill, according to research done by author and oil spill expert, Riki Ott.

In her book “Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” she catalogues the lethal effect of using chemical dispersants on workers who cleaned up that spill. Many of these workers died while Exxon dragged out their court cases.

Ott deplored the use of dispersants in the spill in an interview with CNN Saturday afternoon.

Charter noted that “no one (in the federal government) had been particularly forthcoming” about the dispersants being used, and several telephone messages left by Bellona Web with US Environmental Protection Agency spokespeople were returned Saturday.

Charter said that the worst effects of the spill “are yet to come” and that the effects will intensify by Wednesday.

Marshlands in particular danger

This is largely the case because the oil will have penetrated deeply into the southern Louisiana marshlands.

“There’s a lot at risk here,” Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told The Washington Post. She noted that 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the continental United States are in Louisiana. “Ninety-seven percent of commercial fish and shellfish in the Gulf depend on estuaries and wetlands during their life cycle,” she said.

In the Gulf, some scientists worried about the marsh itself: In south Louisiana, the oil was hitting wetlands dominated by Spartina grass, with huge clumps of dead grass underwater, the Post reported. Thomas Shirley, a professor at Texas A&M University’s Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, said that posed a problem that Exxon Valdez did not.

“There’s no way to wash the oil out of a Spartina marsh,” Shirley told the Post. Instead, he said, it could take years to leach out with the tides. “It’s just a big sponge.”

That could mean trouble for the marsh itself, and for the land behind it. If marshes die, that could remove a key natural barrier that takes the punch out of waves before they hit Louisiana’s fast-eroding coast, the paper reported.