New Zealand’s environment minister, Nick Smith, is now calling
an oil spill resulting from a grounded cargo ship “New Zealand’s
most significant maritime environmental disaster.”
Smith made the comments Monday in Tauranga, where near-pristine
beaches are becoming fouled with oil.
“It is my view that the tragic events we are seeing unfolding
were absolutely inevitable from the point that the Rena ran onto
the reef in the early hours of Wednesday morning,” Smith is quoted
as saying in
Al Fleming of Forest and Bird, New Zealand’s largest independent
conservation group, has mobilized volunteers to search for oiled
“We are faced with a potential disaster along our coastline, and
many bird species are currently breeding,” said Fleming in a
news release. “The news that the oil spill is getting much
worse is a huge worry.”
The organization estimates that 10,000 grey-faced petrels are
breeding on nearby islands, along with thousands of diving petrels,
white-faced storm petrels and fluttering shearwaters.
Up to 300 little blue penguins are estimated to be living along
the coast in the vicinity of the oil spill. Seven of the penguins
were among the birds fouled by oil and brought in for
Spring tides and storm surges could bring oil-laden water up
high on the beaches, where New Zealand dotterels, oystercatchers,
white-fronted terns and other shore birds are beginning to nest on
sandy beaches just above the high-tide mark, the group says.
Migratory birds such as the godwits and red knots are returning
to New Zealand from the Northern Hemisphere and arriving in
Tauranga and other estuaries along the Bay of Plenty coast.
Whales and dolphins are known to be in the area, and a blue
whale and calf were spotted about a week ago. Fur seals are molting
on headlands and beaches throughout the region.
Mussels, crabs, and skinks are plentiful on the beaches.
“Without quick action,” said Fleming, “the oil will blanket our
filter feeding marine life which are not only important water
filters but also crucial in the diets of many animals. Eventually
the oil will accumulate throughout the food web.
In this video by the
New Zealand Herald, Greg Gay of Portland, Ore., joins local
residents in cleaning up a beach near Tauranga.
The latest news is that containers from the ship have fallen
into the sea, broken up and their contents — including freeze-dried
foods — are washing up on nearby beaches.
“A crack running around the ship’s hull was steadily widening in
heavy seas, and officials believed it was only a matter of time
before the vessel split in two,” reports a team of reporters from
New Zealand Herald.
“Three tug boats were waiting either to hold the stern on the
reef as authorities try to remove oil from the Rena’s fuel tanks or
to tow the stern to shallow water.”
Washington state lawmakers have approved legislation that
strengthens the hand of the Washington Department of Ecology, as
the agency continues to beef up the state’s oil-spill response
capabilities. See reporter John Stang’s story in
today’s Kitsap Sun.
Some of the specific requirements were stripped out of the
original bill introduced back in January by Rep. Christine Rolfes,
D-Bainbridge Island. You may wish to review my initial blog entry
Water Ways Jan. 13. In place of detailed requirements, Ecology
was given a strong hand to decide what kinds of equipment are
needed for each area of the state, including Puget Sound.
In that sense, Rolfes’ initial goals for the legislation remain
It seems there is finally some good news coming out of the Gulf
After 170 days, the leaking oil well — nearly a mile under water
— was finally plugged with mud. Officials say it means an end to
the long spill. As BP stated in a
“Pumping of heavy drilling mud into the well from vessels on the
surface began at 1500 CDT on August 3, 2010 and was stopped after
about eight hours of pumping. The well is now being monitored, per
the agreed procedure, to ensure it remains static. Further pumping
of mud may or may not be required depending on results observed
“A relief well remains the ultimate solution to kill and
permanently cement the well. The first relief well, which started
May 2, has set its final 9 7/8-inch casing. Operations on the
relief wells are suspended during static kill operations. Depending
upon weather conditions, mid-August is the current estimate of the
most likely date by which the first relief well will intercept the
Macondo well annulus, and kill and cement operations commence.”
If the spewing has indeed stopped for good, discussions about
the fate of the contamination and restoration of the ecosystem have
some real meaning. A report issued
this morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration starts to put the issue into perspective. Continue reading →
I woke up this morning listening to radio reporter Greg Allen’s
story about Miami Seaquarium on National
Public Radio. My competitive side immediately wondered how his
story would fit in with my story about the Seaquarium, published in
The aquarium in Miami has been getting some local publicity
lately after the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that weathered
oil has a pretty good chance of catching the Loop Current and
making it all the way to Miami’s Biscayne Bay on the eastern shore
Greg Allen got a stronger quote than I from general manager
Andrew Hertz: “We pull our water for our animals straight out of
the bay. And we filter it and we give them clean water. But the
quality of our water is only as good as the quality of the
A new filtration system installed over the past five years
apparently would not be enough to prevent serious illness or death
to the animals in the aquarium.
What Allen failed to bring up in his report was the growing
concern for Lolita, the killer whale, as well as numerous other
marine mammals housed in the aquarium. As I point out in my story,
folks like Howard Garrett of Orca Network and Ric O’Barry of “The
Cove” are raising alarms about the dangers of oil and declaring
that it is time to bring Lolita back to her original home in Puget
Hertz said he will do what it takes to protect animals in the
aquarium, and his staff is working on a contingency plan, which may
involve financial support from BP. But how quickly can something be
built? I guess we’ll have to wait to see the specific plans.
Meanwhile, local biologists have put together a draft
plan for returning Lolita to Puget Sound, if circumstances
allow. The plan was developed a number of years ago and might need
to be updated. But if this oil spill fails to stir up enough action
to move Lolita, it seems highly unlikely that she will ever return
to Puget Sound.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been looking into materials
that can soak up oil during a major oil spill, as well regulations
governing the use of such equipment. The effort culminated in a
Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, which described the thousands of people
donating their hair to soak up oil, and
Tuesday’s story, which talks about potential uses of
Frankly, I learned far more about various materials than I could
fit into either story, so I’m filing away some information for
future reports and discussions.
I began looking into hair booms when I saw newspaper and
television reports about hair salons collecting cast-off hair.
Volunteers were stuffing the hair into the legs of panty hose to
create makeshift hair booms to soak up oil in the Gulf. It bothered
me that none of the reporters were asking whether the hair was
actually being used. Cleanup officials in the Gulf soon announced
that they would not use the hair, yet organizers remained
determined to carry out their plans.
I came to learn that these hair booms were more than a potential
clean-up tool; they were a symbol of concern and empathy being sent
from throughout the world.
Monday’s story focused on inventions using alternate materials
to clean up oil and the difficulty of getting new ideas put to use.
There are so many ideas that I couldn’t begin to explain them all
in a news story, so I focused on a couple of Washington
For some reason, many people are fascinated with the idea of
using hay to clean up oil. A demonstration on YouTube by a
couple of interesting characters (who also appeared on the Sean Hannity
Show) has reached 1.7 million hits. I guess people are
enthralled with the simplicity of using such a basic material as
grass — but lots of natural materials will soak up oil. The
questions are: How much oil can be captured per unit of material?
How well do the materials work in the environment? And how easily
can they be recovered after being soaked with oil? Other factors
include cost, availability, potential reuse , etc.
When I get a chance, I will make a list of the various kinds of
materials being promoted for the cleanup, including natural
materials treated with chemicals to improve their performance. The
list is long and varied. I’m convinced that it would be useful —
either now or later — to have a research group look at all the
factors and offer some observations, perhaps suggesting a “best
As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the
Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.
Sitting here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still dazed by the
realization that an oil well, nearly a mile under water, has gone
out of control, spewing millions of gallons of crude and creating
an underwater mess bigger than what we see on the surface.
I cannot fathom that we are experiencing a disaster likely to be
many times worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez. Until somebody figures
out how to turn off the flow of oil, we can’t begin to estimate the
size of this catastrophe or imagine that things will get
BP is hoping that a process, never used underwater, will stop
the flow of oil. The technique, called a “top kill” and performed
on above-ground wells in the Middle East, involves shooting heavy
mud and cement into the well. The first shot could come tomorrow.
Chances of success are estimated at 60-70 percent by BP, but the
company’s track record for estimates has not been good so far.
Oily dead birds and other sea life, predicted weeks ago, are
washing up on shore. Sensitive marsh lands, impossible to clean
without destroying them, have been touched. Longtime fishermen and
fishing communities are shut down.
“Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Charles
Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain told reporters for the
Los Angeles Times. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All
your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea.
And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”
Yesterday, I joined a telephone press conference with Lisa
Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She
was doing her best to calmly cope with the enormity of the
disaster. She had just come off a boat after witnessing oil piling
up on shore. Joining her was Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who
is in charge of the National Response Team.
Jackson said the federal government has ordered BP to cut back
on the use of dispersants, which break up the oil but may have some
toxic effects. No formal studies have ever been conducted on the
effects of applying huge quantities of dispersants underwater, but
limited studies in recent days suggest that this approach may be
the least harmful method to keep the oil from coming ashore.
Without such treatment, the oil itself is highly toxic and a
much greater concern, she said. BP has been ordered to look for
less toxic alternatives than the dispersant currently being used,
but safer alternatives may not be available in the quantities
needed. Meanwhile, Jackson said her staff believes the treatment
can be equally effective by using half or less the amount of
chemical applied until now.
Keeping as much oil off the shorelines as possible seems to be
the top priority. That starts by keeping some of the oil immersed
as tiny droplets underwater. Oil that reaches the surface is
attacked by skimmers and burned if necessary. Fighting the oil with
absorbent booms and pads along the shore is the last step.
I hope this strategy is not one of “out of sight, out of mind,”
because the oil immersed in the water becomes a problem of its own.
It’s been compared to a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing
that you shake up, breaking the oil into tiny globules that float
around. Smaller globules are believed to degrade faster in the
Still, with this oil starting 5,000 feet below the surface, it
could take months or years to coalesce, rise to the surface and
come ashore, where cleanup crews could be facing oil damage for an
undetermined amount of time.
“I’m afraid we’re just seeing the beginning of what is going to
be a long, ugly summer,” Ed Overton, who has consulted on oil
spills for three decades, told Bob Marshall, a reporter with the
New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but I
think what we’re in for is seeing a little bit come in each day at
different places for a long, long time — months and months. That’s
not what I said in the beginning of this. But events have made me
amend my thoughts.”
Some constituents of the oil will never come ashore but will
drop to the bottom of the Gulf in various locations. As specialized
bacteria move in to break down the oily compounds, they will
consume oxygen, potentially adding to the dead zone in the Gulf of
If this were an earthquake, I would be reporting on damage
assessments and offering hope for a renewed community. If this were
an oil spill from a ship, I would be talking about worse-case
scenarios and long-term effects. But, frankly, it is hard to know
what to say when the spill goes on and on with no certainty at
To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to
BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.
Last, but not least, I am learning a good deal from bloggers who
are part of the UC Davis
Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They are working in the Gulf and
providing an insider’s view about their work with affected
When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared the
oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a matter of national significance,
she essentially put on alert all emergency management systems
across the country.
Washington Department of Ecology, which is responsible for
responding to oil spills in this state, has identified resources
the agency could send while maintaining an adequate local response
capability, said Ecology’s Curt Hart in a memo he issued Monday to
news reporters and editors.
Spill response companies in Washington and across the country
are identifying people and resources that could be sent to the
Gulf, he said.
Hart is communications manager for Ecology’s Spill Prevention,
Preparedness, and Response Program. Here’s a portion of his
Ecology expects to continue to receive requests for people and
equipment from the spill response community to assist in the
response. Our department is working to make sure we have a sound
plan in place to process these requests. It is important that we
are well coordinated in this effort and that no required response
resources are moved out of Washington state without explicit
Some, like the Marine Spill Response Corp., have already sent 26
experienced responders, 15,000 gallons of chemical dispersants used
to minimize oil shoreline impacts, 1,400 feet of special fireproof
boom to burn oil in place on the water.
On Friday, April 30, the Department of Homeland Security asked
state agencies in Washington, including Ecology, what resources
they could send to aid our Gulf coast communities if and when it
This type of issue is not new to Ecology. We have had mutual aid
plans in place with the other west coast states and the Province of
British Columbia since 1993. It is our general policy to provide
the appropriate resources necessary to support our partners in the
United States and Canada in order to protect our national
environmental and economic interest. We may also need their help in
Ecology and other state agencies are participating in the state
Department of Military Emergency Management Division’s “Emergency
Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)” activation. EMAC is a
national interstate mutual aid agreement that enables states to
share resources during times of disaster. We have identified the
types and number of resources that we could send while still
maintaining our local response capability.
In addition to private responders, Ecology has indicated that it
could send 11 specialists in oil spills and natural resources and
27 shoreline cleanup technicians, according to an
Associated Press story by George Tibbits.
It is likely that the cleanup will go on for months. In previous
oil-spill cleanups, workers who come later to relieve the first
responders are invaluable — and that may be when the most workers
from the West Coast are called in.
I’ve been in a mild state of shock since I first heard about the
oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t begin to imagine
the devastation that will take place once this oil starts washing
ashore tonight in the fragile salt marshes along the Louisiana
When I think about the prospect of a ship or oil tanker crashing
in Puget Sound, I consider the oiled birds that die, along with
affected seals and potentially killer whales. I think of the food
web being poisoned. As horrible as that would be, we are talking
about a finite amount of oil — because a ship or tanker can hold
only so much.
On the other hand, the best experts working in the Gulf of
Mexico can’t seem to stop the oil coming out of the seabed, 5,000
feet down. Now officials are saying the spill could be 200,000
gallons a day or more.
How long will the spill continue? That depends on the success of
several options for shut-off, from valves that aren’t working right
now to a domelike device to trap the oil, to a new shaft drilled
down to intercept the old one. It could take months to shut off the
Times-Picayune reporter Bob Marshall wrote of the more than 400
species of animals — including dozens of threatened and endangered
species — that could be injured or killed by oil before this event
The area under threat produces the largest total seafood
landings in the lower 48 states, including 50 percent of the
nation’s wild shrimp crop, 35 percent of its blue claw crabs and 40
percent of its oysters.
Oil Spill Video: Reporters explain status
Marshall quoted Melanie Driscoll of Audubon, bird conservation
director for the Louisiana Coastal Initiative, who was clearly
worried: “This is a really important time for so many species in
this ecosystem, because they’ve just begun spawning and
Marshall along with reporter Chris Kirkham of the New Orleans
newspaper did a great job explaining the latest information on
video. Check out the video player, above right, in which they
interview each other.
As the spill continues and oil gets closer and closer to shore,
a sense of dread is coming over everyone who understands what oil
can do to birds and wildlife. This disaster could eclipse the
devastation of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound,
“It is of grave concern,” David Kennedy of the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration, told
The Associated Press. “I am frightened. This is a very, very
big thing. And the efforts that are going to be required to do
anything about it, especially if it continues on, are just
Maybe it’s too soon to talk about politics, what with 11 people
dead and an environmental disaster looming, but I can’t escape the
fact that a month ago President Obama called for a renewal of
offshore oil drilling.
“By responsibly expanding conventional energy development and
exploration here at home we can strengthen our energy security,
create jobs, and help rebuild our economy. Our strategy calls for
developing new areas offshore, exploring frontier areas, and
protecting places that are too special to drill. By providing order
and certainty to offshore exploration and development and ensuring
we are drilling in the right ways and the right places, we are
opening a new chapter for balanced and responsible oil and gas
development here at home.”
Today, White House officials are saying the oil spill in the
Gulf could change their energy policy. According to a report from
Patricia Zengerle of Reuters,
this is what spokesman Robert Gibbs said about Obama’s views given
the Gulf disaster.
“Could that possibly change his viewpoint? Well, of course. I
think our focus right now is: one, the area, the spill; and two,
also to ultimately determine the cause of it and see the impact
that that ultimately may or may not have.”
And from Carol Browner, Obama’s policy adviser for energy and
“Obviously this will become, I think, part of the debate; that
goes without saying. But I don’t think it means that we can’t get
the kind of important energy legislation that we need.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), urged people to keep the spill in
perspective, according to a story by Greenwire reporter Mike
Soragham in the
New York Times:
“I hope it (the crisis) will not be used inappropriately. We
cannot stop energy production in this country because of this
incident. If we push exploration off our shores … but force other
people to produce it, they will be in regimes and places where
there aren’t these kinds of equipment, technology, laws and
It was at the end of March last year that the Legislature
shifted the burden of paying for a tugboat at Neah Bay to the
shipping industry, and the governor signed the bill into
At the time, it seemed to me that it would be much easier said
than done for various shippers to allocate the cost among
themselves. Industry representatives agreed that negotiations would
be difficult, as I reported in a
Kitsap Sun story last March 31.
The Legislature had looked at a cost-allocation system but
decided to allow the industry to work it out themselves. Progress
reports were required by Oct. 31 and Dec. 1.
And this is where I may have misunderstood the Legislature’s
intent. I thought the idea was that if the shippers failed to put a
system in place by the end of last year, then the Legislature would
come back and do something this year to ensure no disruption in tug
service. By then, the industry would have little room to complain.
But that’s not what is happening.
This week, I wrote about progress in those negotiations and
learned that the two major groups are still some distance apart.
(See Thursday’s Kitsap Sun.) But the Legislature has no intent
of stepping in. The law requires that the tugboat be on station
before ships can operate in Puget Sound, and everyone seems
confident that the law will be followed.
Department of Ecology officials have indicated that penalties
for shippers could run to $10,000 a day if the tugboat is not
there. (You may review the
correspondence on the subject.) Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-
Bainbridge Island, a key player in the bill, told me that the fines
would be enough to cover the cost of the tug, so he would allow the
process to play out.
Since the shipping industry is generally divided between oil
shippers and cargo shippers, the only alternative I can see, if
negotiations fail, is to have two tugs at Neah Bay. Of course, that
would be ridiculous and a waste of money.
As in many negotiations, these are likely to go down to the
wire. Everyone expects a new tug to be in place by July 1.
Don’t expect smooth sailing on funding for the Neah Bay tug.
When the governor signed the tug bill into law last week,
Washington state finally had a permanent source of funding for the
emergency-response vessel. The industry will have to pick up the
tab after one more year.
It was welcome news for those who are concerned that our
pristine shorelines along the Washington coast and Strait of Juan
de Fuca could be despoiled by a major oil spill.
The state has been paying for the tug, though funding has always
rested on the Legislature finding money in the budget. This year,
the cost is about $3.7 million.
So, after the bill was signed, I decided to look at the next
steps. What will it take for industry to set up the funding
mechanism, and what problems do officials see?
It appears the legislation is throwing salt on some old wounds
within sectors of the industry — primarily the oil shippers versus
the cargo shippers. See my story in
today’s Kitsap Sun.
There are more cargo ships moving through our waters, and each
one carries fuel, so should they anti-up the majority of the cost?
On the other hand, the risk of a major oil spill is more likely
among those shipping major amounts of oil, so should they bear the
Throw in extra factors for ships with double engines and double
rudders, which decreases the likelihood that they will become
disabled. Consider problem ships not covered by the legislation.
What you have is the basis for some tough negotiations to divide
the cost among hundreds of ships that transit through Washington
I guess nobody said it was going to be easy. Since industry was
to pay the cost, the Legislature wanted to keep the heavy hand of
government out of it, at least for now.