Saturday, May 29, 2010

Killing an Oil Spill

Handlers cleaning an oiled Brown Pelican / Tami A. Heilemann-DOI 

Yesterday BP continued its effort to plug the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. News reports about the procedure's outcome were contradictory, with some indicating that oil had stopped leaking, while others reported that the effort was unsuccessful. It seems that some of the confusion derives for BP's news releases.
Despite an apparent lack of progress, officials said they would continue with the process for another 48 hours, into Sunday, before giving up and considering other options, including another containment dome to try to capture the oil....

Nor were there perfect answers Friday about the status of the top kill effort. For the second day, public statements early in the day from BP and government officials seemed to suggest progress. Later in the day, they acknowledged that the effort was no closer to succeeding than when they started....

The technician said that engineers had come up with a variety of theories about why efforts have failed so far, and they were trying different sizes of objects. He said the process required trial and error — and sifting through various theories among engineers in the operation’s control room — about the best way to clog the “internal geometry” of the damaged equipment.

BP said pumping operations resumed around 3:45 p.m. Friday.

The technician said that despite all the injections, at various pressure levels, engineers had been able to keep less than 10 percent of the injection fluids inside the stack of pipes above the well. He said that was barely an improvement on the results Wednesday, when the operation began and was suspended after about 10 hours.
There should be some more definite news on this operation in the next day or two. I am still holding out hope that it will work. Until something does work, the spilling oil continues to threaten underwater ecosystems.
At risk are such endangered species as Kemp's ridley sea turtles and the Atlantic bluefin tuna, as well as the Gulf of Mexico's 8,300 other creatures from plankton to birds. The contamination, some say, is likely to undo years of work that brought some wildlife, such as the brown pelican, back from the brink of extinction.

"It's probably going to be one of the worst disasters we've ever seen," said Paul Montagna, a professor of ecology at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

"Instead of creating a typical spill, where the oil goes to the surface and you can scoop it up, this stuff has been distributed throughout the water column, and that means everything, absolutely everything, is being affected," he said.

Further complicating the toxic effects of the oil, the chemical dispersants — used as never before a mile below the surface — have changed the crude in ways that will keep it from breaking down.
The presence of such large amounts of crude oil suspended below the surface in the water column is one of the more disturbing aspects of the current spill. It has as much potential to damage ecosystems underwater as on the surface or on land, but underwater it is out of sight and more difficult to clean up.