Tag Archives: Gulf of Mexico

Amusing Monday: Bowser and Blue all over again

I’m on vacation this week, so I’m falling back to some of my early entries for Amusing Monday. I found an old entry for Bowser and Blue, a couple of funny Canadians who are getting older yet continue to write songs and make fools of themselves, as they’ve been doing for more than 30 years.

I featured their song “Halifax Harbour” in Water Ways on Nov. 24, 2008. This time, I’ve added a new song (in the video player at right) called the “BP Song.” They’re singing about an oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.

Their Bowser and Blue Webpage includes many more songs of all kinds. But the advance warning still stands: Some of their videos are irreverent, off-color and even medically oriented to the point of going places you never want to go — as in “Colon is a Mighty Big River.”

New bill would strengthen state’s oil-spill response

During last year’s oil blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico, I kept thinking about our home waters of Puget Sound.

I kept hearing reports about the conflicts and confusion among the state, federal and local governments operating in the region. I am fairly convinced that intergovernmental cooperation would be better in Washington state, because I have seen representatives of numerous agencies working together on blue-ribbon panels, high-level committees, contingency-planning efforts and oil-spill drills.

One big question that remains controversial is whether this state has enough of the right kinds of oil-spill response equipment in the right places.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island, announced legislation to address this issue. She offered her legislative proposal as the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill released its final recommendations about what went wrong in the Gulf and what should be done to improve deep-water drilling and oil-spill responses.
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Gulf damage assessments begin to roll in

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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Phosphate ban offers a bit of help to ailing lakes

New formulations of dishwasher detergents will help reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into lakes and streams throughout the United States. As of Thursday, detergents containing more than 0.5 percent phosphorus by weight will be banned in Washington and 15 other states, as I reported in a story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

If you don’t live on a lake and never go swimming or boating in a lake, this may seem like a needless effort. But when you see excessive algae blooms and plant growth in a lake, there’s a good chance that it is related to the amount of phosphate flowing into the lake.

It is interesting that this phosphate issue comes up in the same month that I have been writing about new state and federal permits to bring pesticides into compliance with the Clean Water Act. See Water Ways, June 9. Under current state permits, it is fairly easy to get approval to kill the weeds in your lake. But this does nothing to remove the phosphorus that feeds the plants, if that is what is promoting the weed growth. See the Environmental Protection Agency’s website on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

Phosphates in laundry detergents were essentially banned in 1994 in Washington state. On Thursday, the ban is extended to dishwasher detergents. That still leaves what is generally the largest source of phosphates to our water bodies: fertilizers from lawns — and especially from farms in some locations.

Do people who live near lakes make the connection that their green lawns may be contributing to their green lakes?

This is an old story in Michigan and Wisconsin, where people have been struggling for decades to keep their lakes healthy. In 2004, Dane County, WI, took the bold step of banning phosphates in fertilizers, following research that showed that most soils in the region already had adequate phosphorus for plant growth. Now, unless a soil test confirms the lack of phosphorus, it is illegal for county residents to apply fertilizer containing phosphate. See Phosphorus Control in Dane County.

I’m not sure if this ban on phosphate fertilizers is an option anywhere in Washington state, but people probably could use low-phosphate fertilizers, especially near lakes, or at least they could conduct soil tests to see what nutrients need to be added.

Another option is to reduce or eliminate your lawn, switching to native plants that thrive in natural soils found in the region.

I find it interesting that some people are now calling on residents who live in the vast watershed of the Mississippi River to eliminate their lawns as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf. Check out “Want to Help the Gulf of Mexico? Kill Your Lawn” by the Ocean Doctor.

Here’s the argument: The Gulf already suffers from a low-oxygen problem blamed on fertilizers coming from farms and homes throughout 40 percent of the continental United States. Methane gas being released from the BP blowout is fertilizing the plankton that contribute to the low-oxygen problem. The risk is high that many fish and other creatures will be killed as a result of a massive dead zone likely to be created. Since nobody seems able to stop the gushing oil, people may reduce the damage by eliminating their use of fertilizers.

I’m not sure if this makes sense, just as I’m not sure if the use of phosphate-free dishwashing detergents will make much difference. Researchers should be able to help us with these calculations. But if we can live without excessive phosphates — nitrogen, too, in the case of the ailing Hood Canal and South Puget Sound — then maybe it’s worth a try.

No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

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

Ecology tests oil-spill readiness in Puget Sound

Washington state officials were wondering if spill responders would be ready for an oil spill in Puget Sound this week, given that 26 of the most knowledgeable contract employees had been sent to assist in the Gulf of Mexico.

So officials with the Washington Department of Ecology announced a surprise drill today, calling on Marine Spill Response Corporation and its subcontractors to respond to six pretend spills all at the same time.

“This was the first time we have ever been involved in a simultaneous unannounced drill in multiple locations,” said Curt Hart, media relations manager for Ecology’s spill program.

“It went very well,” Curt told me. “What we can say is that we have not lost any readiness in Washington. But nothing is perfect. There will be lessons to learn from every (spill exercise.)”

MSRC serves as the response contractor for 20 regulated oil-handling and shipping companies in Washington state. With 26 top-level people gone from MSRC in this region, much the responsibility fell to Global Diving and Salvage, a company that normally get assignments for specific tasks. In this case, Global officials played a key role in calling the shots.

Ecology had been stressing to MSRC that the company should send people to help in the Gulf but not if it had to reduce its response in Puget Sound. Today’s exercise tested that agreement, including the capabilities of Global as it “backfilled” for MSRC.

Hart seemed pleased with the outcome. First-level responders and their equipment were generally ready at the terminals where the simulated spills took place, and additional equipment was called into play.

The locations of the simulated spills were in Anacortes, Bellingham, Port Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma, with Neah Bay added at the last minute. The drill ultimately called out 16 vessels and 41 personnel. The drill tested communications and equipment.

“We held their feet to the fire,” Hart told me.

While today’s simultaneous exercise was a first, another 50 drills are scheduled through the rest of the year to test all aspects of the industry’s oil-spill contingency plans, according to Hart.

In addition to the drills, Ecology inspectors have conducted 23 inspections this year to make sure equipment is available and ready, he said.

With 22 billion gallons of oil transferred across Puget Sound each year, the risks of a spill are very real, Curt said, despite an extensive prevention program, which includes placing boom around ships during oil transfers whenever practical.

Ecology is maintaining a list of equipment and personnel requested or deployed in the Gulf oil spill.

State will provide cleanup resources to the Gulf

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

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.”

Fishermen report orcas galore in Gulf of Mexico

Fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are understandably excited by a recent sighting of what may have been a “superpod” of more than 200 killer whales — all swimming relatively close together and apparently fishing for tuna.

Up until the sighting earlier this month, Charter boat captain Eddie Hall thought he had seen everything.

“Lot’s of cool stuff, everything from submarines to ships to every kind of shark you can think of, never a killer whale,” he said during an interview with Debbie Williams of WKRG News in the Mobile-Pensacola area. “Never ever thought about seeing a killer whale in my lifetime in the Gulf.”

(If the screen below doesn’t work, go straight to the WKRG Web site.)

Until now, the population of killer whales in the Gulf had been estimated at 150, according to Williams’ report.

Biologist Keith Mullin said 17 orca sightings have been recorded. “Ten to 15 in a pod; that’s the most we’ve ever seen or really even gotten reports of,” he told WKRG.

The stock assessment report (PDF 152 kb) by the National Marine Fisheries Service suggests that very little is known about killer whales in the Gulf of Mexico. A report written in October 2007 offers a guesstimate of 49 animals in the Northern Gulf of Mexico area.

Thirty-two individuals have been photographically identified to date, with 6 individuals having been sighted over a 5 year period, and 1 whale resighted over 10 years… The Gulf of Mexico population is provisionally being considered a separate stock for management purposes, although there is currently no information to differentiate this stock from the Atlantic Ocean stock(s)…

There are insufficient data to determine the population trends for this species. The total level of U.S. Gulf of Mexico fishery-caused mortality and serious injury for this stock is unknown, but the rarity of mortality reports for this species suggests that this level is insignificant and approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate.

As you can see, the knowledge about killer whales in the Gulf is considerably different from what we know about killer whales in the Northwest, where every birth and death of our two fish-eating resident populations are noted and where most of the seal-eating transients have been identified and monitored over time.

For a little more about the recent Gulf sighting, Steve Layton and Gary Finch wrote about the event on the Orange Beach (Ala.) Community Web site, where they said video would be coming soon.

Thanks go to Orca Network for tracking down good whale stories, wherever they take place.