Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Follow-up: BP Deepwater Horizon Reminiscent of the Worst Accidental Spill in History

With over 40 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf, the disaster has already eclipsed the Exxon Valdez. It may become the worst accidental spill the world has seen. In 1979, the Ixtoc 1 blowout spilled between 126 million and 210 million gallons in Mexico’s Gulf Coast over a period of nine months, wiping out fishing in the area for over two years. Actually, during the Gulf War in 1991, retreating Iraqi troops intentionally spilled 462 million gallons, according to the Interior Department, making that the largest oil drop in history.

There are similarities between the two spills. Both involved the failure of a blowout preventer device, a kind of emergency shutoff valve. In each case metal domes were put over the well to stop the flow, without success. The Ixtoc 1 well was owned by Petroleos Mexicanos, Mexico's state oil company, known as Pemex. However, it was being drilled by Sedco, a predecessor to Transocean, owner of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig.

The Ixtoc 1 leak was finally capped on March 25, 1980; Pemex began drilling two horizontal relief wells soon after the spill in June 1979, but they did not reach the Ixtoc 1 well until November, five months later. The crews used the relief wells to pump mud and steel balls into the gusher, which finally succeeded. BP plans a similar maneuver, but claims the relief wells will not be ready until August. However, they must drill in 5000 feet of water compared to the Ixtoc 1 well, which was only in 160 feet of water. Based on BP’s past performance and reliability, who knows if this will really work? BP has tried other procedures that failed: The top kill method pumped huge amounts of mud into the well at a rate of up to 2,700 gallons per minute, without success; a robotic camera on the seafloor appeared to show mud escaping at various times during the operation. BP also attempted several times to shoot assorted junk into the well's crippled blowout preventer to clog it up and force the mud down the well bore and that failed too.

Many residents in Mexico now fear a repeat disaster. A variation in the Gulf currents that occurs every 6 to 11 months could eventually carry the oil toward Mexico, said Mike Pigott, a meteorologist with the AccuWeather forecasting firm."The winds are dead out there now, but in June, they're going to start blowing again," said Roman Dominguez of the Gavilan del Rio Fisherman's cooperative in Coatzacoalcos. "That's what people are worried about. Everyone here remembers Ixtoc." Likewise in the States, people are equally afraid. The currents may carry the oil to Florida’s Atlantic coast and potentially up the eastern seaboard. In Louisiana, the top official in coastal Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser, said "They are going to destroy south Louisiana. We are dying a slow death here” - and hurricane season has just begun.

C. Cohn
Cohn-Reilly Report

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