Gulf oil leak reaches crisis proportions

Plume’s spread laps at La. shore

(Greenpeace via Reuters)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / April 30, 2010

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The massive oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico abruptly turned into a national crisis yesterday, when scientists realized oil is probably gushing from the seafloor at five times the rate they first thought. The expanding slick began washing ashore in the Mississippi River Delta last night.

The leak — estimated to be bigger than the size of Rhode Island — drew immediate comparisons to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the nation’s worst oil spill, which oozed 11 million gallons of oil on a fragile Alaskan ecosystem. While the amount of oil escaping from the Gulf leak so far is much less, the leak could go on for months and, some environmentalists and scientists fear, cause comparable damage in one of the nation’s richest sources of seafood.

Much will depend on how much of the lightweight oil is pushed by winds and currents into Louisiana’s fragile coastline, home to hundreds of thousand of seabirds and the breeding grounds of billions of fish and shrimp.

President Obama pledged technological and other support as scientists, federal officials, and environmentalists rushed to contain the leak and prepared for a massive cleanup. The leak is occurring at an awkward time for the president, who recently called to expand offshore drilling to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

“This is a spill of national significance,’’ Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said at the White House before flying to the Gulf Coast.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig 40 miles off the Louisiana coast exploded more than a week ago before sinking, leaving behind 11 missing and presumed dead workers and an oil leak that was recalculated yesterday at 210,000 gallons a day, up from 42,000 gallons a day.

It’s not that the amount of oil leaking has changed — rather, federal officials said the amount had been low-balled initially because it is so hard to tell how much is leaking from the seafloor by examining the oil sheen on the surface.

“It’s premature to say this is catastrophic. I will say this is very serious,’’ said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

About 1,100 people were working on capping and containing the leak yesterday, but fierce winds and choppy seas hampered the work and pushed the light brown oil plume toward the coast. Efforts to use underwater robots to close a valve on the seafloor to slow the flow have not worked, and attempts to limit the expanding slick with booms and even by setting it afire have not stopped the oil from drifting toward the coast. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana declared a state of emergency.

Specialists from around the nation were called in to help, including two from New England. Steve Lehmann of Lowell, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oil specialist, and Kate Clark, a damage assessment specialist, both from the agency’s Office of Response and Restoration, will fly to Louisiana today to help track the leak and gauge environmental damage.

“We’ll act as a science liaison for the Coast Guard,’’ Lehmann said by phone yesterday as he packed. His office often travels to national and international oil spills to help forecast the spills’ path, conduct shoreline surveys, and plan the cleanup.

“They really know what they are doing there, but it is really hard to put the cards back in the deck when [a spill] is that big,’’ he said.

In contrast to the Exxon Valdez tanker that spilled heavy oil in the top ocean layer of the enclosed Prince Edward Sound, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well leak is in the expansive Gulf of Mexico. The oil is bubbling up from the seabed, mixing with water to create a kind of mousse, much like eggs and oil create mayonnaise. This increases the volume of the spill and makes it much harder to clean up. And it’s relatively close to shore, giving nature little time to evaporate and break up the slick.

“Time is not on [their] side,’’ said Malcolm Spaulding, professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island.

Chris Reddy, an oil specialist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, cautioned that each oil spill is different and it is difficult to predict the ecological impact along the coast of Louisiana, as well as Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

“The dose makes the poison,’’ he said.

Reddy said much has changed since the Exxon Valdez spill — oil cleanup specialists are better trained and have prepared for such an event. Coincidentally, just last month, 600 people from 50 federal and state agencies and private businesses took part in a massive training simulation of an oil spill of national significance in Portland, Maine.

“This is not a surprise for responders,’’ said Reddy. “But the question is how long can you handle a spill.’’ If the well can’t be plugged or doesn’t tap out, the leak could go on for a long time, he said, “hitting a coastline that just got damaged from [Hurricane] Katrina.’’

Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production, which is responsible for the leak, said the company may start drilling another well nearby to divert the oil and plug the leak.

However, that could take three months, Suttles said. Other less-tried techniques were also being discussed.

In Louisiana, state officials warned that commercial fisheries could close and fishermen took to the water to catch as many fish, shrimp, and oysters as they could before the oil arrives.

“Our top priority is to protect our citizens and the environment,’’ Jindal said.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.