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Gulf Oil Rig Disaster: Perspectives from in the air and on the ground

Frances Beinecke

Posted May 12, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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High over the Gulf of Mexico, I looked down in horror and sadness Wednesday at the site of the massive BP oil spill.

Clear blue waters were streaked with rivers of crude oil, a thick brown stew of petroleum toxics streaming unchecked toward the open sea.

A thinner but still poisonous sheen coated the surface with a curd-like film as far as the eye could see.

"Off to the right," my helicopter pilot, Ted Grove said, tilting slightly to open my view to dark red plumes of oil, stretching for miles from the site where the BP oil rig sank April 22 after an explosion two days before.

Since then, more than 4 million gallons of crude oil have gushed into the fertile Gulf, threatening marine life and bearing down on the rich coastal waters, beaches and wetlands some 40 miles to the north.

As we circled the site, I felt I was looking down on some seaborne disaster area, as, indeed, I was.

There were some three dozen ships working within an area of perhaps 20 square miles or so.

I counted eight skimmers trolling the waters corralling the thick crude near the center of the site.

Close by, huge fountains of water fluid gushed from a pair of ships -- spraying dispersant directly at the spill site, according to the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

A ship with an enormous industrial-style crane was on site -- apparently in connection with the "top hat" BP was hoping to deploy to try to stem the flow of oil.

And there were tenders working the underwater robotic vehicles prowling the deep water below in search of a solution to the raging spill.

We can only hope -- and pray -- for their success.

What took my breath away, though, was the extent of the calamity unfolding in the Gulf.

The skimmers are a help, and the dispersant will chemically break apart down the oil into smaller globs. Some of the crude will evaporate in the warm Gulf air. [ed note: The dispersant doesn't chemically degrade the oil itself.]

The oil, though, is there, and the pollution with it -- in the ocean, in the air, and headed, inevitably, toward the shallow coastal waters and fertile wetlands and shore.

We can struggle to contain it -- as many were clearly doing on Wednesday and have done for weeks. But we can't put it back in the well.

That's why we need to find out what caused this terrible accident, what we must do to prevent anything like this from ever happening again and what we can do to hold BP accountable for the terrible cost this disaster has already begun to exact from the region.

I was reminded of those costs as we flew back toward shore. I saw hundreds of miles of coastal wetlands and waterways, essential habitat for shrimp, oysters, fish and birds.

I recalled the voices of oystermen, fishermen, shrimpers and others I visited with Tuesday on the bayou below, the Gulf Coast community activists I'd met with in Biloxi, Miss., and the environmental justice experts I'd listened to in nearby New Orleans.

As this oil creeps over the ocean it is suffocating not only habitat and wildlife but also the livelihood and way of life for thousands of Gulf Coast residents.

The people of this region are a resilient lot. This, though, has them scared.

They are untrusting of BP. They are worried about their health. They are frightened for their future and their families.

We need to do better in this country.

We need to begin the long process of reducing our reliance on oil and increasing our use of renewable and sustainable fuels.

As I was flying over the Gulf of Mexico, the despair of Gulf people mirrored in the terrifying glaze of oil moving menacingly over the sea, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were unveiling legislation that can help.

It isn't perfect legislation. There is much to improve. As I flew over those wounded waters today, though, I felt hopeful that this legislation can begin that process. Now, let's move it forward.

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Comments

GregMay 12 2010 06:53 PM

They hit somethin' down there, pocket of gas/volcanic activity? There's more toxic oil underneath that water then we can see. This is not just oil leaking from a pipe, this is a horrific black demon spawned from the depths. The entire Gulf is filling with this evil stuff. She's toast, the Gulf will never ever be the same. It's almost humorous how the news, and a lotta people just go about their daily business, and ignore the biggest man made disaster in human history.
If we can't fix it, then we shouldn't drill that deep ever again...PERIOD!

JudyMay 12 2010 08:01 PM

If the dome would have stopped the the flow, why was that bad? People think it only effects us on the Gulf Coast. I've seen reports that the Gulf puts out approximately 40% of the nation's seafood. That seafood is not only for human consumption. Your pet food, chicken feed, fertilizers all use fish meal. I'm sure there's much more that seafood is found in. It not only effects us, it will effect everyone in the food chain and your pets.

Jim LooneyMay 14 2010 05:06 PM

I have lived, worked and fished the waters in the marshes and the offshore waters for over 40 years and this spill is unbelievable. It has the potential to desimate the entire coast of Louisiana along with coastlines of other states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I know that there will be finger pointing for a long time as the decision of "Whose fault was it?" The main thing now is to stop the leak ASAP with any means possible. Seems that those in high places keep trying to do this and trying to do that. What the heck are engineers for? Can't they determine the possibilities of something working before they take all that time trying it out. You can't tell me that the hydrate problem was not discovered as a possibility before they tried to drop the box over the worst leak. They know the temps down at that depth and how methane, oil, saltwater and all other things in crude oil will react at that depth. A chemical engineer would probably have that answer long before they even hauled that box out there. Seems somebody is not asking the right information sources about issues that have the potential of surfacing (along with volumes of crude oil). Of course you should know that we are going to have globs of crude oil throughout the Gulf water column for a very long time and over years this will wash upon our shores in the Gulf and kill our wildlife in the process. Don't even mention if a hurricane should show up (and the season begins June 1--but the bad ones normally don't show up until latter August and into September. Will not take a bad Hurricane to scatter this oil all over the northern Gulf and force it into the marshes and over and under oil booms that have be spread out. Calm weather and these booms may work to some degree, but during rough water times these booms will wind up somewhere back in the marshes and the oil following right behind them. Very little help there except during calm conditons.
Jim Looney

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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