New Gulf explosion points to ongoing oil risks

In a successful operation Sept. 2, BP replaced the “blowout preventer” on the Deepwater Horizon well, although the “bottom kill” relief well is still underway five months and counting after the disaster began. (VOA, Sept. 2) Also Sept. 2, a new explosion ripped through an offshore oil platform off the Louisiana coast, throwing 13 crew-members into the water. All were rescued alive by a Coast Guard vessel. Mariner Energy of Houston, Texas, the owner of the platform, deployed three firefighting vessels to the scene and extinguished the fire. No oil is believed to have leaked from the platform, called Vermillion Block 380. (ENS, Sept. 3)

Although before the Deepwater Horizon disaster they won little media attention, government statistics show that more than 100 fires and explosions have taken place in the Gulf of Mexico each year since at least 2006. Last year, there were 133 fires and explosions that occurred on gulf oil structures, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. In 2008, there were 139 such incidents. (Dow Jones, Sept. 2)

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week opened more federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Panhandle to commercial and recreational fishing. NOAA said the 3,114-square mile area had a low risk for future exposure to oil. 39,885 square miles of federal waters remain closed, extending from the Louisiana coastline southeast into the open Gulf. (AP, Sept. 3)

However, sampling commissioned by environmental groups has found oysters contaminated with oil along the Louisiana coast, casting doubt on statements by state and federal officials that all seafood tested here is safe to eat. Tests on oysters sampled on Aug. 2 and 3 near the mouths of the Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers revealed the shellfish were tainted by oil, according to chemist Wilma Subra. The sampling was backed by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper and the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. (AP, Sept. 2)

Another team of researchers at the USM Gulf Coast Research Lab are trying to determine how sea life will be affected by the disaster, exposing fish, shrimp and crab to different mixes of oil and dispersant at various stages of life. The team will especially look at the effects of dispersed oil. According to Dr. Joe Griffith, because dispersed oil sinks, it is more difficult to find and spreads more easily—and therefore can potentially affect more organisms. (WLOX, Biloxi, Sept. 2)

In other words, while dispersed oil is good for BP, getting gruesome images of befouled sea life out of the media, it may not actually be so good for the sea life in the long run.

The sea life may, however, have received an unanticipated helping hand from Mother Nature. Berkeley scientists have discovered a voracious species of primitive oil-eating bacteria that have largely consumed the huge deep-sea plume that emanated from the Deepwater Horizon rig following the explosion in April. As a result of the bacteria, the toxic plume that was once 22 miles long and more than 3,600 feet deep is now “undetectable,” according to Terry C. Hazen, the chief microbiologist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For millions of years, bacteria have been eating oil that seeps from the sea floor, but Hazen and his colleagues discovered a particularly gluttonous form that multiplied rapidly in the months after the disaster. (San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 25)

Which loans credence to those who argued, riffing off the Gaia Hypothesis, that the ocean itself may have a plan.

See our last post on the politics of oil spills.

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