Oil Disasters Through History: Third of Ten

In the days leading up to the 6th month anniversary of the BP deepwater drilling disaster, GRN is highlighting nine previous oil disasters, to give historic context to what the Gulf of Mexico is experiencing, and will experience for years to come.Ixtoc I, 1979 While being drilled by the SEEDCO 135, a loss of drilling mud circulation caused the two-mile deep oil well, Ixtoc I, to blow out on June 3, 1979. The well platform, located 600 miles south of Texas in Bahia de Campeche, Mexico, ignited and collapsed onto the spewing wellhead, blocking the immediate attempts to control the blowout. It took until March 23, 1980, over nine months, for the Mexican authorities to successfully drill two relief wells and permanently cap the ruptured well. Between June and July an estimated 30,000 barrels of oil per day were flowing from the well. The number was reduced down to 20,000 and then again down to 10,000 barrels of oil a day once mud, steel, and iron balls were all pumped into the well as an attempt to reduce the flow of oil. Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the company leasing the well at the time of the blowout, argued that half of the daily oil released burned upon reaching the surface, one third of it evaporated, and the rest was either contained or dispersed. Overall, 428 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf from the Ixtoc I well.A Norwegian oil company was contracted to initiate the clean-up processes with skimmers and containment booms. Conair Aviation was hired to spray Corexit 9527, a chemical dispersant, on 1,1000 square miles of the oil slick. Dispersant use was not permitted in US territory. Along the Texas coastline, barrier islands and their bays and lagoons received the most protection. Booms were placed along the inlets to the bays. During past incidences, due to beaches harmed more by the clean-up process compared to the oil spill itself, this time the barrier islands’ beaches were cleaned using a less destructive method of rakes and shovels. In the past, heavier equipment has been used, such as the pressure washing for the Amoco Cadiz and the bulldozers for the Torrey Canyon spill, and caused long-term destruction instead of a faster recovery time.The Ixtoc 1 oil spill created a very similar situation for the fishermen near Champotón and Campeche as the BP drilling disaster is causing for the Gulf fishermen of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It began with local fishermen not understanding the impact of a large oil spill and not being educated on the long-term effects oil can causes to an ecosystem, “thirty years ago, most fishing villages were so isolated that locals knew little about the disaster playing out just a few kilometers away. Many believed Ixtoc I was a fairly small spill, although it was among the largest in the planet’s history” (Mark Schrope, “The Lost Legacy of the Last Great Oil Spill,” Nature News). It was devastating blow to the local fishermen especially because many of them, living in such small, isolated towns, had nowhere else to turn for income and food. On reflection, most of the fisheries recovered from the spill faster than expected. Records of Campeche shrimp-catch show that within two years fishermen were hauling in catches equal to those pre-spill. Locals state that the fish catches improved substantially within three to five years. The only organisms that did experience long-term effects were the oysters. According to locals and a study by Wes Tunnell, associate director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the oysters never returned after the Ixtoc I disaster. Equally bad, the delicate mangrove swamps and salt marshes of the area are still retaining and suffering from the oil. The more productive ecosystems, says Tunnell, take longer, potentially decades, to regain their health. Overall, the healing time of the Gulf and the surrounding ecosystems all depends on the resiliency and health of the Gulf itself. Researchers are hesitant in comparing the quick recovery time of the fisheries after Ixtoc I to the fisheries today, due to the changes to the ecosystem.Above Photo: NOAA Incident News, IXTOC I well blow out

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