BP Oil Spill 2 Years Later: For Dauphin Island, Cure Worse Than Disease?

There’s been plenty of ink the past couple of weeks about the lingering impacts of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two years ago here at SkyTruth we were just beginning to raise the alarm that the spill was actually much larger than we were being told by BP and government officials, and that the nation’s previous worst oil spill — the Exxon Valdez disaster — had already been surpassed.  Months of agony and economic loss followed for folks in the Gulf region and beyond. Recovery has come in fits and starts, with mixed news for offshore drilling and tourism (generally up), and for fishing and the environment (generally down).

We recently learned about another long-term casualty of the oil spill: Dauphin Island, Alabama, a beautiful stretch of barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay. In this case most of the damage was done not by the oil spill itself, but by a panicky and ill-conceived response effort during the spill (“we had to destroy this village, in order to save it“).  Large quantities of sand were excavated from a series of pits on the Mississippi Sound side of the island to build a berm along the Gulf side, a move designed to keep oil from washing up over the beach in case of a storm:

Sand berm being piled up along Gulf side of Dauphin Island during 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo courtesy The Washington Post.

The berm was never needed. Possibly it would have helped if a hurricane came along during the spill, but it’s not clear such a flimsy barrier would survive long under those conditions.  What has become apparent is how rapidly and dramatically this action is altering Dauphin Island.  22 pits were dug into the Sound side of the island to excavate the necessary sand. These pits quickly became ponds of standing water. The ponds are steadily eroding and growing to the point where some are now open to the sea, and subject to further erosion by waves and tide. Satellite imagery and aerial survey clearly show how this has progressed, threatening properties on this developed part of the island:

West end of Dauphin Island in May 2010.  Excavation of sand to build a berm along south (Gulf) side of island is underway; sand is being removed from pits on the north (Sound) side. One pit has already filled with water (dark rectilinear shape at right center).
Same area in January 2012. Sand-excavation pits are now ponds filed with water; some have eroded to the point that they are open to the Sound.  One coastal engineering scientist thinks the eroding sand-excavation ponds are now a weak spot in Dauphin Island that could become the next breach when a major storm hits.

This area full of houses now looks strikingly similar to how an undeveloped stretch of the island a few miles to the west appeared before it was breached by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Called the Katrina Cut, the mile-long breach had grown to nearly 1.4 miles wide by June 2010, when the Army Corps of Engineers began piling up a barrier of rock and sand to close off the gap and block BP’s spilled oil from entering the Sound.  This barrier ended up costing $17 million, and didn’t fully close the Cut until January 2011 — four months after BP’s runaway Macondo well had been plugged, and just five months before the whole danged thing was supposed to be removed, according to the original construction permit.  The State of Alabama is asking for permission to keep the structure in place, although one scientist thinks that’s not a good idea.

What’s more, the sand berm was apparently piled on top of water and sewer lines servicing the island, causing potential problems and additional expense for future maintenance work.  In this case, it looks like the actions taken to minimize damage from the oil spill might actually cause worse impacts down the road.  Will we be making the same dubious decisions when the next major oil spill comes around?

View a slideshow of our time-series images of Dauphin Island, or check them out one at a time in our Flickr image gallery.

Why BP Should Go On Trial For Gulf Oil Spill

The federal trial to determine accountability and penalties for the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil and gas disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was set to begin in New Orleans this morning, but has been delayed by one week to allow more time for BP, the feds, and other stakeholders to reach a settlement.

Deepwater Horizon rig sinking on April 22, 2010.

We appreciate that the many businesses and families harmed by this massive industrial accident may want to receive compensation sooner rather than later. A trial and the inevitable appeals would likely stretch on for years, with the outcome uncertain.

On the other hand, a quick settlement is the best outcome for BP, because they may avoid having to pay the higher $4,300-per-barrel-spilled fine for “gross negligence,” and would only face the much lower automatic fine of $1,100 per barrel.  Given a total spill of 172 million gallons (4.1 million barrels), that’s a very big difference: $4.5 billion instead of $17.6 billion.  Even a company as large as BP, which earned profits of $23.9 billion in 2011, would feel some pain from the gross negligence fine.  And unless they feel real pain, the offshore drilling industry is likely to continue doing business as usual, making another massive deepwater spill a near certainty.

More important than meting out sufficient punishment: there is bipartisan legislation in play called the RESTORE Act that would specifically allocate 80% of the fine to the Gulf states affected by the spill, rather than the general treasury. We assume (optimistically) much of the money would be used by those states to fund social, economic and ecosystem revitalization projects.  If the Act does get passed by Congress, the additional $13.1 billion yielded by a determination of gross negligence could make a huge difference to Gulf communities.

Most interesting to us: if settlement talks fail and this case goes to trial, we expect federal prosecutors will attempt to paint BP as a “rogue” operator that took unusual risks, to convince the judge that the spill resulted from gross negligence.  BP, to defend itself, will likely claim that their operations, well design, and decisionmaking were not so unusual, and were consistent with industry-wide practices.  To make that case BP will have to present lots of information about the offshore drilling industry as a whole, including the safety record, accidents and near-misses experienced by other companies that we never hear about.  None of the official investigations of the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill looked at the industrywide record, leaving many of us wondering:

Just how risky is modern offshore drilling?

A trial may be the only way to answer that question, so we can make better-informed decisions that minimize the likelihood and impact of the next big spill as industry moves steadily forward with deepwater drilling.

Friday Night Appearances!

If you’re in the Shepherdstown, WV area this Friday evening November 4, come on out to the Shepherdstown Opera House for a screening of the film The Big Fix, ‘a comprehensive investigation into the massive BP Deepwater/Horizon spill in the Gulf which digs deeper to reveal a darker more unsettling truth about the world we live in today. By exposing the root causes of the spill, filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell uncover a vast network of corruption that not only caused one of the greatest environmental catastrophes of all time but may also lead to something that could be even more damaging to life as we know it; an inevitable global currency collapse.’

The film will be followed by a panel discussion with none other than our own SkyTruth president, John Amos, as well as Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation and Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post.  Joel is also author of a riveting book about the spill, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, if you DO come out to the Opera House, don’t forget to set your DVR’s and Tivo’s for the SkyTruth interview with West Virginia’s PBS. Our segment will be shown on Friday night’s episode of This Week In West Virginia, which will be airing at 8:00 p.m. If you miss that airing, don’t fret! Another airing will be shown on Sunday, November 6 at 6:00 p.m.

Radar Satellite Images of BP / Deepwater Horizon Spill Area, September 11 and 14

We are focusing particularly hard on the area of the BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill in recent days, after documentation of slicks in the area near the Macondo well site on August 19, and about 15 miles to the northeast on August 30.  The small area of thin slick sampled by Ben Raines on August 23, about one mile from the well site, was chemically tested by Ed Overton of Lousiana State University who declared it a “dead ringer” for Macondo crude oil; possibly leaking from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon rig or the 5,000′ of collapsed riser pipe on the seafloor around the Macondo well. As far as we know, no samples were collected from the much more extensive patch of slicks observed on August 30.  Tropical Storm Lee blew in and knocked everyone out of the Gulf soon thereafter.

Some have suggested that crude oil from the reservoir 8,000′ below the seafloor might be working its way up through faults and fractures in the bedrock, or along the Macondo wellbore.  If that happens we would expect to see “seepage on steroids” as oil works its way to the seafloor along multiple pathways and floats up to the ocean surface to form persistent oil slicks.

We would be able to observe those slicks on satellite imagery, just like we repeatedly observe slicks from active natural oil seeps throughout much of the Gulf.  Radar imagery is the go-to tool for the job.  A radar image taken on August 30 showed a patch of slick matching the area and description given by Bonny Schumaker when she flew over that site earlier in the day; an image taken a few days earlier, on August 26, showed nothing interesting in the vicinity.

We’ve got a couple more recent images to look at.  This one shot on September 11 shows a lot of slicks in the area – a very complicated pattern typical of low-wind conditions (about 2 m/s), where dark, swirly patterns of natural surfactants usually present on the ocean surface are mingled with slicks from natural oil seeps and those possibly caused by oil leaks and spills, making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions (although note the slick apparently emanating from the location marked 23051, where we’ve documented a chronic leak from hurricane-damaged wells and routinely observe similar slicks) :

Envisat ASAR image taken September 11, 2011. Eastern edge of the image appears at right (black fill denotes no image data). Mississippi Delta is bright “bird’s foot” at left center.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

Here’s the exact same area as it looked on another Envisat ASAR radar image shot at about 1pm local time yesterday under good conditions (wind blowing from the northwest at 4 m/s). We see a slick once again associated with the 23051 site, a few small slicks west and southwest of the Macondo well location that are very closely associated with known natural seep locations, and a variety of larger slicks in Breton Sound where we routinely see reports of leaks and spills from offshore oil facilities (and so can you, if you subscribe to SkyTruth Alerts):

Envisat ASAR image taken September 14, 2011. Mississippi Delta is bright “bird’s foot” at left center.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

And here’s the same shot, with pipelines shown in orange, active platforms as orange dots, and natural oil seeps shown as green dots (seep data provided by Florida State University):

Envisat ASAR image taken September 14, 2011, with oil and gas infrastructure (orange) and known natural seep locations (green).  Image courtesy European Space Agency.

The upshot: we’re not yet seeing a trend that would support the idea that oil is working its way up from the Macondo reservoir and turbocharging the existing natural seeps in the area, or forming new sites of chronic leakage.  But we don’t have enough imagery yet to say for certain it isn’t happening.  All we can do is keep looking, and compare what we’re seeing now with images of this area from before the BP / Deepwater Horizon spill began last April.  We’re working now on getting those historical images so we can establish that pre-spill baseline.

Platform 23051 Site – Still Leaking, Magically!

Back on September 2 somebody submitted a pollution report to the National Response Center indicating an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it popped up in the SkyTruth Alerts system.  That’s depressingly common – there are typically a dozen or so reports of spills every day in the Gulf.  And this one came from a familiar place, the site of a former oil platform (#23051) about 12 miles off the tip of the Mississippi Delta, in Mississippi Canyon Block 20.  We’ve been systematically documenting a chronic leak there since we first became aware of it last summer during the unrelated BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.

But the September 2 report is magical:  The caller – presumably an employee of or contractor for the company – claimed a spill totalling 0.0000027 gallons.  That’s 1/500th of a teaspoon.

  • Magic Act #1: How did they measure it?
  • Magic Act #2: This vanishingly minuscule spill somehow created an observable oil slick 1,000′ long and 200′ wide, covering a total area of 4.6 acres with a “silvery sheen.”

Silvery sheen is at least 0.04 to 0.3 microns thick.  By our calculation, that’s a slick containing 0.2 to 15 gallons.  Sure, 2/10ths of a gallon isn’t much, but it is 74,000 times larger than the caller reported. Maybe this was a simple transcription error at the NRC.  But if not, this one gets the prize for ridiculousness, reinforcing our evolving theory that polluters are consistently underreporting the amounts of pollution. Cumulatively, given thousands of reported spills a year, these unreported amounts add up to a much bigger mess than the public has been lead to believe.  In a place like the western and central Gulf, maybe this is no big deal; but in new places where we’re moving ahead with drilling – the Virginia coast, the Arctic Ocean – the routine leaks and spills associated with coastal industrialization and offshore drilling might not be so easily shrugged off by tourists, fishermen, and the environment.

And by the way, we’re seeing a lot more than 5 gallons in the ongoing spill – 24/7/365 since September 2004 – from this hurricane-damaged cluster of wells.  The MODIS /Aqua satellite image below, taken on September 10, shows a slick originating at the 23051 site that extends almost 35 miles. And the radar satellite image at bottom, taken on August 30, shows a slick at the site that stretches about 13 miles. We’ve collected dozens of images showing slicks at this site routinely stretching more than 10miles.

Detail from MODIS satellite image taken September 10, 2011 showing 35-mile-long slick emanating from 23051 site at left.
Radar satellite image taken August 30, 2011, showing 13-mile-long slick at 23051 site at upper left.

We suspect that some of the oil slicks and occurrences of tarballs and other oil on the Louisiana coast are probably coming from this location, not from the BP / Deepwater Horizon site 40 miles offshore.  To help eliminate this possible source of confusion, scientists from National Wildlife Federation are taking a boat out today — guided by SkyTruth’s maps, coordinates, and image analysis — to collect a sample of the oil slick at the 23051 site.  We hope to get that sample chemically “fingerprinted.”  As always, we’ll report the results right here.

Slicks From August 30 – Back Again Today?

Tropical Storm Lee is long gone, the clouds are clearing, and the MODIS/Terra satellite image taken of the Gulf this afternoon seems to show a patch of dark slick located in the same place as the slicks documented by Bonny Schumaker on her August 30 overflight and confirmed on a radar image taken that same day.  The dark patch under the yellow marker is roughly the same size, too, about 14 miles x 5 miles.  And as before, there is no obvious connection between this patch of slick and BP’s Macondo well site.  Maybe it’s coming from something else.  We just don’t know yet.

Weather permitting Bonny may fly out there again tomorrow.

Detail from MODIS / Terra satellite image taken September 9, 2011 showing dark patch in same location as oil slicks observed on August 30.

Gulf Overflight and Radar Image (August 30) Now in Google Earth

Our friends at SarSea created an interactive Google Earth file (get it here) that shows the flight path of Bonny Schumaker’s August 30 overflight and the photos and video she took of the oil slicks she observed during that flight. Here’s an overview that also shows the location of the Macondo well – the source of last year’s BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill – and the 23051 Site where we’ve been watching a chronic leak from a cluster of wells that were damaged by Hurricane Ivan waaaay back in 2004, overlain on an Envisat ASAR radar satellite image that was taken at about 11pm that night:

Bonny Schumaker’s August 30 flight path and photo points, overlain on August 30 radar satellite image. Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency.