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Awash in a Sea of Oil
Tue, 25 May 2010 11:46:03 GMT
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by Tahereh Ghanaati

As the last days of May creep towards June, British Petroleum's (BP) Deepwater Horizon gusher continues to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico with seemingly no end in sight. Since BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore rig exploded on April 20, rupturing the wells over which it was positioned, vast amounts of crude have been continually pumping into the Gulf. Every attempt to stem the flow has failed and the effects of the 785,000 gallons of toxic chemicals BP has used on the water's surface to disperse the oil are nearly as bad as the spill itself.

According to some experts, the massive spill has already surpassed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that leaked 11 billion gallons of crude into the North Pacific, devastating the Alaskan coast. Unfortunately, those allegations are most likely correct. BP recently admitted that the ruptured wells -- there are actually three of them -- are leaking 210,000 gallons of oil a day. That is the revised figure.

The company had originally estimated that the amount of crude spilling into the gulf was only 5,000 gallons a day; but the mammoth underwater oil plumes erupting from the shattered wells told a different story. One of those plumes, which was actually measured, was found to be 10 miles in length and a mile in width.

Slimy, viscous oil now lacquers 65 miles of once-pristine Louisiana shoreline and has been washed up on a 150-mile stretch of coastal beaches, extending all the way from Grand Isle, Louisiana to Dauphin Island, Alabama. According to experts, Louisiana's marshlands could begin dying within a week. The spill has already proved fatal to marine life, killing, at the most recent count, over 300 birds, nearly 200 turtles and at least 19 dolphins.

This past Monday, the scope of the event prompted U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to declare it a disaster for the $2.4 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry, which has remained paralyzed for over a month. In fact, as far back as the end of April, the United States government designated the spill an “incident of national significance”, which, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, would allow government assets and resources to be ordered to the disaster site from other parts of the country.

Indeed, this has already been done - at least to some extent. BP has not had to handle the containment and cleanup efforts alone. Though US attempts were initially hampered by adverse weather conditions, by April 29, a total of 69 vessels including an assortment of skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery ships had been deployed in the area and were actively involved in helping mop up the spill. However, even the combined efforts of the British oil company and the United States Coastguard met with failure because the shattered wells were pumping the crude into the water faster than it could be cleaned up. And that is the problem in a nutshell. Until the wells can be plugged, no amount of cleanup can do much good.

Though BP has tried a number of times to stop the leak, all attempts made so far have failed. Soon - possibly as early as Wednesday, May 25 -- the oil company will launch still another effort, using a technique known as a 'top kill' in which heavy mud and cement will be shot into the shattered wellheads to plug them up. According to BP executive Tony Hayward, the procedure, which has never been tested in such deep water (5,000 feet beneath the surface), has a 60 to 70 percent chance of success. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who heads the US government's response to the spill maintains that BP is "exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak." Such efforts, however, may not be enough - particularly, if the top kill technique meets with failure.

We can only imagine the disaster in store for the Gulf of Mexico and the lands bordering it if the spill is not stopped. That would include not only the gulf, itself and the southern coast of the United States, but possibly, the east coast of Mexico along with eastern Central America - or various Caribbean island nations if the spill hits the 'loop' and swings around the Florida peninsula. In fact, Cuba is already preparing for the possibility of such an event. And to further complicate an already critical situation is the fact that we are nearing June 1, which is the official opening of the hurricane season in the Atlantic.

It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that a hurricane - any hurricane --would wreak havoc on the oil spill. According to Florida State University oceanography professor, Ian MacDonald, a storm could vastly complicate everything and all efforts both on shore and at sea, including booms, structures and rigs involved in cleanup operations could stop working. Furthermore, a hurricane could disperse the oil throughout the gulf and even send it into the loop, which would, in turn, take it up the North American coast and far out into the Atlantic. But even that is not the worst.

Kevin Trenberth, a US climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research maintains that present climate conditions point to a particularly destructive hurricane season. If a particularly savage hurricane does strike before the leak has been stopped the consequences would be both disastrous and far-reaching.
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