Gulf Oil Catastrophe – GRN’s View from Above

Yesterday I was able to fly out over the BP oil spill site, thanks to our partners at Southwings, and pilot Tom Hutchings out of Fairhope, AL.We were shocked at what we saw. The main spill was at least 8 miles across, creating a kind of peninsula from what was presumably the site of the rig explostion and stretching for 45 miles, in a Northeastern and Southeastern direction.The crude at the surface of the Gulf has been churned into a ‘chocolate mousse’ material that was easy to spot from our altitude of 4,000 feet. The mousse covered approximately 100 square miles, and then faded into a heavy, then light sheen, which faded about 20 miles from the Chandeleur Islands, critical bird nesting and migration habitat.The containment and cleanup efforts were obviously inadequate to deal with the scale and scope of the ongoing spill. Despite claims of dozens of boats called to action, we saw three airplanes dropping a chemical dispersant onto the spill, and it was like an eye dropper on a forest fire. Yesterdays weather was beautiful and clear, yet no boats were actively skimming, and no booms had been laid down to contain or absorb the oil. If what we saw is an indication of the ongoing response, BP and the Coast Guard need to be challenged by the highest levels of authority.As we approached the spill sight Tom spotted some sort of marine wildlife, which since seen at that altitude was most likely one of the members of the pod of sperm whales that feed in the area. This underscores the threat of this spill to wildlife. The spill and sheen area is used by a wealth of amazing animals, including whale sharks, many different species of threatened and endangered sea turtles, dolphins, porpoises and sea birds. Unfortunately, this is also the time of year that the critically threatened Western Atlantic bluefin tuna schools enter the Gulf, their only known spawning grounds.We have a report that the first efforts by the remote operated sub to close the blowout preventer valve have failed, but that efforts continue. If the valve fails to function, we are left with two more steps to contain, then stop the spill. First, positioning an underwater dome over the spill site, to allow BP to vacuum up the oil more effectively, while more drilling rigs are brought into the area to drill relief wells to pump in mud and concrete and seal the well. The dome hasn’t ever been used at these depths though, and the timelines for the relief well option aren’t attractive. The Austrailian spill last year took over two months to staunch, while a similar accident in the Mexican portion of the Gulf took approximately ten months to stop. At the current spill rate, we may be looking at more than 3 million gallons of oil pumped into the Gulf if relief wells are necessary.It’s critical that NOAA, the Coast Guard and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with their state partners in Mississippi and Louisiana signficantly scale up their efforts to monitor, assess, and mitigate the spill impacts on marine wildlife, both in the short and very long term. BP is footing the bill, but we need to make sure the federal and state agencies are demanding and receiving the resources they need to protect the Gulf.For more pictures from the flight, click here.Aaron Viles is GRN’s campaign director.Please consider making a contribution to GRN to help us have the resources for our monitoring and advocacy in the face of this environmental catastrophe.

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