The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been spreading steadily and at a much greater rate than earlier determined. Like the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska, it is devastating to the affected marine ecosystems and has the potential to get much worse. For clean ocean and anti-drilling advocates, it represents the worst-case scenario they have been warning about.
Now that the damage has been done, all that’s left is to contain it from affecting the shoreline and estuary systems of the gulf coast. In that effort, the federal government is deploying its resources in concert with British Petroleum, owners of the Deepwater Horizon rig which exploded and sank.
The U.S. Coast Guard is one of the agencies taking the lead in containment, but there is another agency involved that is playing a vital role, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Its main task is to protect coastal and marine resources and provide comprehensive solutions to environmental hazards caused by oil, chemical, and marine debris.
Yesterday, NOAA issued a press release which explained the current situation and actions they are undertaking. They are experimenting with innovative solutions to a deep water spill of unprecedented size. Workers have fabricated a containment chamber that will be deployed to the sea floor to gather the oil as it escapes to the sea from the well. They are now working on a piping system to bring that oil to the surface for collection. This is the first time such a collection system is to be used at such a depth.
The following is a list of additional actions being undertaken by NOAA:
- Weather monitoring: the winds must be tracked to determine the trajectory and velocity of the environmental release. The winds are forecast to become strong and blow from the southeast and continue through the weekend, pushing the surface oil towards the shore.
- 100,000 feet of non-flammable oil-containment booms have been fanned out to protect the particularly sensitive areas of the Louisiana coast where landfall is expected to occur.
- Evaluations are being prepared on the effects of oil on sensitive shorelines and habitats along the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
- NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division is evaluating the affects of oil contamination to fish and fisheries, marine mammals, and sea turtles.
- Baseline aerial surveys have been conducted by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to assess marine life and will continue as needed.
In the meantime, BP in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard is moving forward with their pre-approved oil spill response plan. The oil spill response team has recovered 16,311 barrels (685,062 gallons) of an oil-water mix. Their flotilla of vessels is continuing to remove as much of the spill as possible.
BP and the Coast Guard are also preparing to drill a relief well into the existing well to stop the flow of crude oil into the sea. The Transocean Development Driller III is being brought onto the scene after being granted the approval by the U.S. Minerals Management Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. This plan is a backup plan if in case other measures fail as it would take several months to complete.
Other measures being undertaken include controlled burns of surface oil, but this can only be done when the oil has reached a certain thickness. According to NOAA, the surface is very thin and consists of 97 percent sheen. Also, remote-operated marine vehicles are being sent down to the sea floor to try to trigger the blowout preventer, a series of valves that sits at the well head. Unfortunately, the pressure from below might be too great for the valves to make an adequate seal. All efforts at this point to close the valves have failed.
Oil spills and leaks have happened plenty of times before, and containment and clean up efforts have generally improved over time. However, the current situation poses challenges never faced before. How do you stop the flow of oil from a well head under 5,000 feet of water? Hopefully, the people working on the scene can come up with an answer to that soon, or this ecological catastrophe will be getting much worse.
For more information: NOAA Press Release
For more information: BP Press Release
Article by David A. Gabel appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.
photo: NASA Goddard