THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Chris Reddy

A different kind of battle in the Gulf

By Chris Reddy
May 6, 2010

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THE UNITED STATES has arguably the best resources to combat oil spills, but we haven’t fought anything quite like the oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

Deepwater Horizon is not like the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. That spill dumped a huge, but relatively short, burst of crude oil near the coast: 10.9 million gallons in a day into Prince William Sound off Alaska. Deepwater Horizon is leaking a smaller load — about 250,000 gallons a day, 5,000 feet below the sea surface — but it is ongoing. If the leak cannot be shut off by the end of May, Deepwater Horizon will have surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill.

Second, the spill is occurring offshore in an open body of water. This poses challenges in corralling it with booms, skimmers, and in-situ burning. On the other hand, it also provides space for the oil to spread out and become diluted, which could reduce its toxicity to wildlife. It’s not necessarily the amount of oil spilled but also the concentration of oil in the water that will dictate the extent of damages.

In the Exxon Valdez case, responders had no warning, no time to prepare, and few resources in the area. For the Deepwater Horizon spill, command-and-control centers have been established, and well-trained teams have been assembled, armed with detailed maps and charts on coastlines highlighting areas most vulnerable to oil pollution. They had several days to muster equipment and consider strategies. Team leaders have invaluable experience mitigating past spills.

But as military planners know well, learning lessons from past wars doesn’t necessarily help you fight a different kind of enemy. Numerous factors, some unpredictable such as weather and some never encountered before, will come into play. And as this spill keeps on going, success in combating it may require unprecedented stamina on the part of both personnel and equipment. If they diminish, officials may have to make triage decisions on which coastal areas to defend and which they cannot, as well which ones should get cleaned up first.

Of particular concern are marshes along the coastline, which are critical habitats for marine life and buffers against erosion. Marshes are difficult to clean up, and impacts to marsh ecosystems can last for decades. Research that I and other scientists have conducted on oil spills in Buzzards Bay has shown that the last remnants of diesel fuel spilled in 1969 continue to have deleterious impacts on crabs, mussels, and marshes grasses today. However, there are other cases, such as the Julie N spill in which marshes in Portland, Maine, had nearly recovered in a year. This fact underscores that every oil spill is different.

There is one similar incident to Deepwater Horizon to look at, but it’s not inspiring. In 1979, a blowout at a drilling platform in the Bay of Campeche in Gulf of Mexico released millions of gallons of oil. It was far shallower, only 150 feet below the surface, yet it took nine months to cap it. Even with months of warning, beaches in Texas were oiled.

If Exxon Valdez was like Pearl Harbor, Deepwater Horizons could be more like the Battle of Stalingrad. A dream team of oil-spill responders is on site, but the outcome is difficult to predict.

Chris Reddy is director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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