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Oil Spill is the ‘Bad One’ Experts Feared

Environmental effect compared to Category 5 hurricane

Image: 1979 oil spill in Mexico
In this August 1979 photo, Mexico’s runaway Ixtoc 1 oil well dumps oil into the Gulf of Mexico in what was the worst peacetime oil spill on record. (Photo credit: AP file)

By Seth Borenstein

April 30, 2010

WASHINGTON — What makes an oil spill really bad? Most of the ingredients for it are now blending in the Gulf of Mexico.

Experts tick off the essentials: A relentless flow of oil from under the sea; a type of crude that mixes easily with water; a resultant gooey mixture that is hard to burn and even harder to clean; water that’s home to vulnerable spawning grounds for new life; and a coastline with difficult-to-scrub marshlands.

Gulf Coast experts have always talked about “the potential for a bad one,” said Wes Tunnell, coastal ecology and oil spill expert at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “And this is the bad one. This is just a biggie that finally happened.”

Recipe for devastation

It hasn’t quite become a total disaster yet. But it’s hard to imagine it not being devastating, said Ed Overton, who heads a federal chemical hazard assessment team for oil spills. The Louisiana State University professor has been testing samples of the spilled crude.

He compared what’s brewing to another all-too-familiar Gulf Coast threat: “This has got all the characteristics of a Category 5 hurricane.”

If conditions don’t change quickly, devastation of the highest magnitude is headed for somewhere along the coast, said Overton, who works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 200,000 gallons of oil a day are spewing from the blown-out well at the site of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded April 20 and sank two days later. Crews are using at least six remotely operated vehicles to try to shut off an underwater valve, but so far they’ve been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, high winds and waves are pushing oily water over the booms meant to contain it. Besides BP, a slew of federal and state agencies are scrambling to minimize the onslaught of damage.

‘This is relentless’

Experts in oil spills have drills every few years to practice their response for spills of “national significance.” One of those practice runs took place just last month in Maine. The Gulf of Mexico leak is a “combination of all the bad things happening” and makes it far worse than any disaster imagined in the drills, said Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

“This is relentless,” Kinner said.

Most Americans think of Exxon Valdez when it comes to spills. But the potential and likelihood here “is well beyond that,” said University of Rhode Island ocean engineering professor Malcolm Spaulding. Because the Deepwater Horizon well has not been capped and may flow for months more, it should be compared to a bigger more dangerous one from a well explosion in 1979, said Tunnell. That was Ixtoc 1, off the coast of Mexico. It was the worst peacetime oil spill on record.

The current spill “is kind of a worst-case scenario,” Tunnell said.

What makes this spill relentless and most similar to Ixtoc 1 is that it’s an active well that keeps flowing. The Exxon Valdez was a tanker with a limited supply of oil. The rig 40 miles from the Gulf Coast may leak for months before a relief well can be drilled to stop the flow, Kinner said. …

Type of oil also a problem

The type of oil involved is also a major problem. While most of the oil drilled off Louisiana is a lighter crude, this isn’t. It’s a heavier blend because it comes from deep under the ocean surface, Overton said.

“If I had to pick a bad oil, I’d put this right up there. The only thing that’s not bad about this is that it doesn’t have a lot of sulfur in it and the high sulfur really smells bad.” …

This oil also emulsifies well, Overton said. Emulsification is when oil and water mix thoroughly together, like a shampoo, which is mostly water, said Penn State engineering professor Anil Kulkarni. …

And once it becomes that kind of mix, it no longer evaporates as quickly as regular oil, doesn’t rinse off as easily, can’t be eaten by oil-munching microbes as easily, and doesn’t burn as well, experts said. …

Oil pushing toward sensitive coastal areas

The wind and waves are also pushing the oil directly toward some of the most sensitive coastal areas: the marshlands of Louisiana and surrounding states.

And there are three types of beaches: sandy, rocky and marshy. Sandy beaches, like those in Florida, are the easiest to clean, Overton said. By far the hardest are marshlands and that’s where the oil is heading first.

Marshes are so delicate that just trying to clean them causes damage, Kinner said. Once the oily mess penetrates, grasses must be cut. But it also penetrates the soil and that is extremely difficult to get out, she said.

The normal bacteria that eats oil needs oxygen to work, and in the soils of the marsh, there’s not enough oxygen for that process, she said.

It’s also the time of year in the Gulf of Mexico when fish spawn, plankton bloom and the delicate ecosystem is at a vulnerable stage.


Related feature

Top 10 worst oil spills


Related reports on this site

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill washes ashore in Orange Beach, Alabama on Saturday, June 12, 2010. Large amounts of the oil battered the Alabama coast, leaving deposits of the slick mess some 4-6 inches thick on the beach. (Photo credit: Dave Martin / AP)

Oil Spill Fundamentalist Threat (June 21, 2010)

Oil Spill: Bachmann Bats for BP (June 18, 2010)

Gulf Coast Oil Disaster (June 3, 2010)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — April 30, 2009

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5 Responses to “Gulf Coast Oil Spill is The Big One”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Gulf Coast Oil Disaster Says:

    […] Gulf Coast Oil Spill is The Big One (April 30, 2010) […]

  2. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Oil Spill: Bachmann Bats for BP Says:

    […] Gulf Coast Oil Spill is ‘The Big One’ (April 30, 2010) […]

  3. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Oil Spill Fundamentalist Threat Says:

    […] Gulf Coast Oil Spill is ‘The Big One’ (April 30, 2010) […]

  4. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Columbine: 12th Anniversary Says:

    […] One year ago the nation suffered the worst oil spill in its history when BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and gushing millions of barrels of oil. […]

  5. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Gadhafi Kin Killed in Airstrike Says:

    […] Gulf Coast Oil Spill is The Big One […]

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