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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘oil spill’

New Zealand faces its worst-ever oil spill

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

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 Aljazeera.

Al Fleming of Forest and Bird, New Zealand’s largest independent conservation group, has mobilized volunteers to search for oiled wildlife.

“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 rehabilitation.

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 the 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.”


State oil-spill law will push for better response efforts

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

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 in 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 in place:

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Gulf damage assessments begin to roll in

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

It seems there is finally some good news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.

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 news release:

“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 during monitoring…

“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.
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Lolita’s fate could become linked to Gulf disaster

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

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 today’s Kitsap Sun.

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 of Florida.

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 bay.”

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 Sound.

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.


Lots of things soak up oil, but what works best?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

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 story in 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 alternative technologies.

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 companies.

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.

Following a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Chairman Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, concluded that much more research is needed on sorbents and other cleanup technologies.

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 buy.”


No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.

An oil-covered pelican flaps its wings on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on Sunday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican and other birds, is being hit by oil washing ashore.
AP photo by Patrick Semansky

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 better.

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 environment.

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 Mexico.

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 all.

To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Official sources of information:

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Fishery Closure Information

EPA Response to BP Oil Spill

Other valuable links can be found on a website for Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs

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 wildlife.

Pelicans fly past a nest of eggs on an island off the the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, is being impacted by oil coming ashore.
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert


State will provide cleanup resources to the Gulf

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

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 memo:

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 approval.

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 becomes necessary.

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 return someday.

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.

Ecology has set up a website for those who want to follow Washington state’s response to the Gulf oil spill.

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.


A sense of dread looms over Gulf tonight

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

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 Coast.

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 oil.

Yesterday, 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 is over.

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 nesting.”

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, Alaska.

“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 mind-boggling.”

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.

Here’s what Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said on March 31:

“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 climate:

“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 rules.”


Will a new Neah Bay tug arrive on schedule?

Friday, February 5th, 2010

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 law.

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.


Who exactly should pay for the Neah Bay tug?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

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 greater cost?

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 waters.

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.

To review the tug bill, its summary, legislative analysis and other information, go to the Washington State Legislature’s bill page. Another interesting document is a summary of Vessel Entries and Transits for Washington Waters – 2007 (PDF 147 kb) published by the Washington Department of Ecology.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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