Oil from the BP oil spill has reached the coast of Louisiana and the first oiled bird was found. The most recent update from NOAA on the spill outlines the threat and projects the main slick will reach coastal wetlands in the region this weekend:
Today the Deepwater Horizon incident declared a Spill of National Significance (SONS). A SONS is defined as, “a spill that, due to its severity, size, location, actual or potential impact on the public health and welfare or the environment, or the necessary response effort, is so complex that it requires extraordinary coordination of federal, state, local, and responsible party resources to contain and clean up the discharge” and allows greater federal involvement.
(see the full size trajectory map here)
This is far from the first major oil spill in this region.
The largest oil spill in North America occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The 200- foot-deep exploratory well, Ixtoc I, blew out on June 3, 1979, in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, releasing 10,000 – 30, 000 barrels (0.4 – 1.2 million gallons) per day for nine months. Nearly 500 dispersant air sorties were flown in Mexico.
Manual cleanup in Texas was aided by storms. Though the blowout preventer (BOP, valve designed to seal off a wellhead) failed, injection of metal and concrete balls into the well slowed the release. By the time the well was brought under control in March 1980 by drilling two relief wells to relieve pressure, an estimated 113 million to over 300 million gallons of oil had spilled (10 times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez). Oil travelled 800 miles to the north, oiling more than 150 miles of shoreline in Texas and unknown miles of shoreline in Mexico.
And according to NOAA “more than 250 oil-related pollution incidents were reported in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, releasing an estimated total of 8 million gallons of oil directly into inland waterways and wetlands. Because many spills went unreported and others were never attributed to a specific source, the actual amount of oil released into the environment will never be known. Shallow nearshore areas, coastal and inland wetlands, and sand beaches were among the numerous habitats impacted by these spills.”
Meanwhile, NOAA scientists now think the rate of oil flow out of the well could be five times higher than originally though:
Estimates of the release rate increased to 5000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day based on surface observations and reports of a newly discovered leak in the damaged piping on the sea floor.
The spill will at the very least, shut down the regions highly lucrative fisheries for months, possibly for years. Fishermen are getting involved in cleanup efforts hoping to save their livelihoods and looking for new work.
About 1,000 angry and frustrated fishermen packed an elementary school gymnasium here Friday afternoon to receive training in how to clean up the oil spill that was creeping up on the nearby coastline. They were hoping to be hired by BP, the company blamed for the spill and responsible for response efforts.
Life in this coastal community centers on seafood — mullet, shark, shrimp and oysters. From May to September, dozens of boats haul shrimp here from the Gulf of Mexico. But the shrimp season was halted prematurely this week, only two days after the Louisiana Legislature had called for an early start to the season.
If the fishing jobs disappear this season, those who make their living on the water may be facing a cruel occupational twist: forced to seek employment with the company they blame for the spill.
“Environmental President” Obama gave a slippery response to a question about the spills impact on his new initiative to expand offshore drilling:
“I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security,” Mr. Obama said on Friday, addressing concerns about whether the administration would continue with its plan to increase drilling in the Gulf.
Even so, he said, “the local economies and livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast as well as the ecology of the region are at stake.”