Deepwater Horizon disaster still not over?

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Aug. 19 that BP has denied charges that oil is again leaking from the capped Macondo well that blew out last year, destroying the Deepwater Horizon platform and fouling large stretches of the Gulf of Mexico. Company spokesman Daren Beaudo refuted claims that BP has hired vessels to contain a new “oil sheen” near the site of last year’s disaster. The reports fist emerged on the blog of New Orleans lawyer Stuart Smith, who asserted that BP had hired 40 boats to clean a new spill. It should be noted that BP’s denial contained some equivocation. From the closing paragraphs of the Times-Picayune story:

Beaudo said Coast Guard officials notified BP and several other oil companies that operate platforms or have drilled in the area in the past of the sheen reports last week.

“We inspected our operations and our assets and didn’t find anything,” Beaudo said. “But we have two plugged and abandoned wells that were drilled in the ’90s in Green Canyon Blocks 463 and 461.”

The company sent a submersible vehicle to the seafloor to inspect the two abandoned wells and found that some sort of material seemed to be leaking from the sea floor near the Block 463 site, he said.

“We think it’s silt from a subsurface shallow water pool,” Beaudo said. Records for that well indicate that it was drilled through a shallow lens of groundwater, and that may be the source of the material rising from the bottom. The company is awaiting the results of tests on samples of the material, he said.

Meanwhile, BP also reported to the response center on Aug. 16 that a light sheen was formed near its Thunder Horse platform in the Mississippi Canyon area when a small amount of oil was released with treated produced water from wells served by the platform.

Environmental writer Judson Parker fleshed out some details on The original source of the reports seems to be an “anonymous captain” with the firm Vessels of Opportunity, who said BP had hired approximately 40 boats from Venice and Grand Isle to deploy booms around the Deepwater Horizon site, some 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The fleet began its mission over the weekend to contain a growing sheen on the water near the site of the Macondo wellhead, which was declared “officially dead” on Sept. 19, 2010.

Ominously, Parker notes that earlier this year, “geohazards specialist” BK Lim (who was a featured speaker at a Gulf Oil Spill Remediation Conference in Tallahassee last August), sent a letter to US Reps. Fred Upton, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and John Shimkus, chair of the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, suggesting that the former site of the Deepwater Horizon may not be permanently plugged. Parker wrote:

There is no question that the oil seepages, gas columns, fissures and blowout craters in the seafloor around the Macondo wellhead… have been the direct result of indiscriminate drilling, grouting, injection of dispersant and other undisclosed recover activities. As the rogue well had not been successfully cemented and plugged at the base of the well by the relief wells, unknown quantities of hydrocarbons are still leaking out from the reservoir at high pressure and are seeping through multiple fault lines to the seabed. The continuing hydrocarbon seepage would have long term, irreversible and potentially dire consequences in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the Stuart Smith Blog, the man who started the little media splash also makes note of the unsettling whiff of obfuscation:

We are looking for clarity this morning as mainstream media outlets, including the Associated Press, are reporting that BP has admitted to “investigating a new sheen in the Gulf of Mexico.” That muffled admission is in line with what our independent sources told us, and what we reported here, yesterday: That BP has hired a fleet of boats to lay boom in the vicinity of the old Deepwater Horizon site. This morning’s AP report is brief and filled with the vagueness and “wiggle room” that we’ve have come to expect from BP’s crisis-management specialists:

LONDON (AP) – Oil giant BP says it is investigating a new sheen in the Gulf of Mexico…

BP did not make clear Thursday what the source of the new sheen was, but told The Associated Press in London it was not found near “any existing BP operations.” A sheen is a shiny coating that floats on the surface of the water, and could come from leaked or spilled oil.

London-based BP spokeswoman Sheila Williams said that “there is a lot of sheen in the Gulf of Mexico area” and that the substance did not necessarily come from a BP site or well.

If we look carefully at the language – which you can bet was meticulously edited and honed—there is nothing that would indicate that the source of the sheen is not the Macondo Well site. BP telling the AP in London that the sheen was not found near “any existing BP operations,” does not discount the Macondo Well as a possible source. Since it was capped last year, the Macondo Well would not be considered an “existing” BP operation.

Correct. Let’s hope this one is not allowed to quietly disappear down the Memory Hole…

See our last post on the Gulf of Mexico disaster and the politics of oil spills.

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  1. Grim convergence on the Gulf Coast
    We’ve already noted the grim convergence of the nuclear threat and extreme weather related to “global weirding” that caused a brush with disaster on the Missouri River earlier this summer. Now a grim convergence of the Gulf oil spill and extreme weather… From ABC News Aug. 29:

    Oyster Population Plummets in Louisiana After BP Spill, Floods
    Today, on the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana and Mississippi are battling a sharp decline in the oyster population, which may not recover until 2013 now that a two-year influx of fresh water has killed off millions of the mollusks.

    After the BP oil spill in 2010, water was diverted out of the Mississippi River to keep the oil away from coastal wetlands. In the process, freshwater flooded into oyster hatcheries, disrupting the delicate saline balance required for oysters to survive. When saline levels get too low, algae die, eliminating the oyster’s food supply.

    And if it weren’t already enough that the Gulf Coast had been hammered by the largest oil spill in U.S. history as well as record drought, oyster farmers got hit again in May after rain and snowmelt had caused the Mississippi River to rise higher than it had in 70 years.

    The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway, located west of New Orleans, to divert rising Mississippi River floodwaters from the city. Soon after, they also opened the Morganza spillway, diverting water away from both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and adding even more fresh water to oyster grounds.

    “This year we’ll produce about 50 percent of our traditional in-shell oysters,” said Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafoods, which typically produces about 20 million pounds of in-shell oysters.

    Yes, this does have to do with global climate change.

  2. Macondo well still leaking?
    The claims are mounting, even if the media aren’t paying much attention. This from AlJazeera, Sept. 13:

    Fifteen months after BP’s crippled Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico caused one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, oil and oil sheen covering several square kilometers of water are surfacing not far from BP’s well.

    Al Jazeera flew to the area on Sunday, September 11, and spotted a swath of silvery oil sheen, approximately 7 km long and 10 to 50 meters wide, at a location roughly 19 km northeast of the now-capped Macondo 252 well.

    According to oil trackers with the organisation On Wings of Care, who have been monitoring the new oil since early August, rainbow-tinted slicks and thicker globs of oil have been consistently visible in the area.

    “BP and NOAA [National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] have had all these ships out there doing grid searches looking at things, so hopefully now they’ll take a look at this,” Bonny Schumaker, president and pilot of On Wings of Care, told Al Jazeera while flying over the oil.

    Schumaker has logged approximately 500 hours of flight time monitoring the area around the Macondo well for oil, and has flown scientists from NASA, USGS, and oil chemistry scientists to observe conditions resulting from BP’s oil disaster that began in April 2010.

    Edward Overton, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University’s environmental sciences department, examined data from recent samples taken of the new oil.

    Overton, who is also a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contractor, told Al Jazeera, “After examining the data, I think it’s a dead ringer for the MC252 [Macondo Well] oil, as good a match as I’ve seen”.

  3. Fed report on Gulf disaster blasts BP
    From the Washington Post, Sept. 14:

    A 16-month federal investigation has concluded that BP’s efforts to limit costs on its mile-deep Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico contributed to the blowout last year that killed 11 workers, sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and created the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

    The long-awaited report by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement catalogues dozens of mistakes, misapprehensions, risky decisions and failures of communication that led to the blowout and the 87-day spill that spewed nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the gulf.

    The report also found fault among BP’s contractors, including Transocean, which owned the doomed rig, and Halliburton, which handled the cement job that failed to seal the bottom of the well before the blowout. But it says BP was “ultimately responsible” for safe operations at the Macondo well…

    “BP’s cost or time saving decisions without considering contingencies and mitigation were contributing causes of the Macondo blowout,” the report declared.

    See also the conclusion of the Oil Spill Commission on BP and Transocean.

  4. BP dispersant may not have worked
    From AP, Sept. 20:

    BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Tar balls washed onto Gulf of Mexico beaches by Tropical Storm Lee earlier this month show that oil left over from last year’s BP spill isn’t breaking down as quickly as some scientists thought it would, university researchers said Tuesday.

    Auburn University experts who studied tar samples at the request of coastal leaders said the latest wave of gooey orbs and chunks appeared relatively fresh, smelled strongly and were hardly changed chemically from the weathered oil that collected on Gulf beaches during the spill.

    The study concluded that mats of oil – not weathered tar, which is harder and contains fewer hydrocarbons – are still submerged on the seabed and could pose a long-term risk to coastal ecosystems.

    BP ( BP – news – people ) didn’t immediately comment on the study, but the company added cleanup crews and extended their hours after large patches of tar balls polluted the white sand at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach starting around Sept. 6. Tar balls also washed ashore in Pensacola, Fla., which is to the east and was farther from the storm’s path.

  5. Gulf shrimp catch a bust
    More ominous news from the Stuart Smith blog Oct. 6:

    This year’s white shrimp season off the coast of Louisiana looks like a bust, despite the fact that state fishery experts had predicted a bumper crop. But that was before the BP oil spill hit last April – just as the white shrimp were beginning to spawn. The timing couldn’t have been worse.

    Today, the reality out on the water, according to Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry, is that catches are down some 80 percent across the board. Areas hardest hit by last year’s 200-million-gallon spill are yielding next to nothing. Many shrimpers, who have trawled the waters off Grand Isle for many years, are now being forced to move to more fertile grounds.

  6. BP gets $250 Million in oil spill settlement
    BP announced Dec. 16 that Cameron International, one of its contractors in the oil well that burst last year in the Gulf of Mexico, has agreed to pay $250 million to settle claims related to the ensuing spill. Houston-based Cameron designed and manufactured the so-called blowout preventer on the drilling rig, which failed to stop the oil from spilling. The settlement, which is BP’s fourth so far with companies that worked on some parts of the well, was not an admission of liability by either party, BP said. (NYT, Dec. 16)