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Deepwater Destruction

April 30, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

The first sheen from the massive BP oil spill approached the Louisiana coast last night. While deep ocean life is at immediate risk, a large share of the tragedy is directly related to how much oil reaches the abundant shores. This of course depends on how fast they can stop the leak of crude oil happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on Tuesday, April 20, claiming 11 lives. It wasn't until the weekend that BP discovered a failure in the blowout preventer, which interrupts the oil flow in such emergencies. Another breach was found this week that rocketed the initial leak estimate five-fold, to 200 000 gallons per day. At the current rate, in 50 days, the spill will approach the Exxon Valdez disaster in scale.

Since no human can venture to the sea floor at those depths, BP is relying on remotely operated vehicles to inject more hydraulic fluid and manually close the valve. So far, no success.

On the surface, while skimmers and dispersants do their thing, another more controversial plan has been tested: in-situ burning. Literally lighting the ocean on fire. This is a dangerous, difficult method that still leaves about half the oil left over, and a heavy sticky residue at that. But it’s a classic case of "lesser of two evils." Huge black smoke plumes, and benthic sludge? Or oily, suffocated land where lush greenery once thrived? If choppy seas don't get in the way, BP will be trying this tactic more than a few times.

There are other measures that will take weeks to months: domes may be installed to collect the oil and pump it to the surface, and they plan to drill a relief well into the oil reservoir to lessen the pressure of the leaks.

In the meantime, shrimp boat captains are becoming key players in this drama. They have been given emergency fishing licences to catch as many of their lifeblood as possible before the oil comes, and at the same time, they are contributing to the recovery by skimming oil in shallow areas. Two shrimpers also filed a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit against BP and Transocean yesterday, forecasting economic devastation for many local industries.

As if New Orleans needed another man-made disaster.

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