Mystery Oil Slick off Grand Isle, LA

Reports of an oil slick in the Gulf just off Grand Isle, Louisiana this weekend prompted us to take a close look at the available low-resolution MODIS satellite imagery from NASA. Some accounts claimed an oil slick as large as 100 miles long and 12 miles wide, and mentioned a 4-6 hour leak from an offshore well that was being plugged.

It seems a couple of things are happening: the Coast Guard does say there has been a leak from a well undergoing plugging operations (we’re still trying to determine exactly which well, and where). But there is also a huge plume of sediment (and other stuff) surging out of the Mississippi Delta and streaming past Grand Isle, thanks to the spring melt of much deeper than normal snowpack in the upper Midwest, and heavy rainfall in the Mississippi watershed. This sediment plume looks pretty ugly up close: it’s brown, nasty, and carries a lot of stuff in it that is very bad for the Gulf: pesticide and fertilizer runoff, sewage overflows, and oily runoff from all our paved roads and parking lots that’s been building up over the winter. This is what causes one of the Gulf’s worst, chronic environmental problems: the giant “dead zone” that forms every year.

This MODIS image taken from the Aqua satellite in Saturday shows this big brown plume of gunk knuckling toward Grand Isle:

NASA satellite image taken about 2pm local time on Saturday, March 19, 2011

Photos taken from the air over the weekend show what looks to me like the leading edge of this nasty sediment plume, not an oil slick. And the MODIS satellite images taken since Friday don’t show any sign of a major oil spill. But there is more to this story: the Coast Guard does say that there has been a leak from a well, and oil from that leak began coming ashore on Elmer Isle, Grand Isle and Fourchon Isle on Sunday.

We know that several wells have been steadily leaking at the site of a destroyed oil platform since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, with sporadic work since then to plug those wells; we assume that work has still not been completed. It’s possible the oil originates from that location; the MODIS image shows surface currents moving from the Platform 23051 site toward Grand Isle.

Grand Isle Platform 102A is also nearby, about 50 miles south of Grand Isle. This oil platform was evacuated just two weeks ago when it caught fire. The company reports that production had been shut in before the fire, but we’ve seen no followup since then on the status of that platform.

Again, based on the free NASA satellite images we’ve seen so far, there is no sign of a large oil spill. We’ll keep looking.

Check out Videos of SkyTruth’s Presentation at American University.

Here are clips to some highlights from SkyTruth’s presentation at American University on February 15.

Here is the introduction and John discussing what we do here at SkyTruth.

In this clip, John discusses his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on November 19, 2009. Hear all about how much the Senator from Louisiana liked him.

John discusses the view from above and then takes you down to ground level.

And in this last clip, John shares with the group some of his favorite satellite images.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – Then and Now

Yesterday we posted on the deepening crisis at the blast-damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan; our first version of that post compared a March 16 high-resolution satellite image of the plant with what we thought was a March 12 image of the same plant. A couple of alert readers pointed out that the March 12 image actually showed a sister nuke plant nearby, the Fukushima Daini plant, so we removed that image from the blog (you can see it here).

Today, we’ll take a look at before-and-after images of the struggling Daiichi plant made using imagery from DigitalGlobe and Google Earth:

Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken March 16, 2011 (from DigitalGlobe). Obvious damage to the outer containment buildings from hydrogen explosions at reactor units 1, 3 and 4. Unit 2 appears relatively intact but unseen damage inside the unit from a March 14 explosion is posing a serious threat


Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken in 2004, with 3-d buildings shown for reference (from Google Earth)


Fukushima Daiichi, high-resolution satellite image taken in 2004 without 3-d buildings overlay (from Google Earth)

Damage to Nuclear Reactor Buildings – Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, Japan

The situation is steadily getting worse at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crippled by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

Here’s what it looks like today, on March 16:

These hi-resolution satellite images from DigitalGlobe starkly reveal the extent of damage to the outer containment buildings surrounding the reactors. Check out all of the images and damage analyses at the DigitalGlobe website.

Feds Issue 2nd Deepwater Drilling Permit in Gulf

BOEMRE, the Federal agency managing offshore energy development, just issued a second permit to allow deepwater drilling to continue in the Gulf of Mexico. Like Noble Energy, recipient of the first permit, BHP Billiton (an Australian company) will resume drilling on a well that had been partly completed when the BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil spill occurred last April.

Another unfortunate similarity: the public version of BHP’s permit application contains no information about oil spill containment, cleanup, or other response plans and capabilities. I hope it’s all in the redacted version. But shouldn’t that information be readily available to the public, along with a record of decision detailing the agency’s review of the information and justifying their confidence that the applicants can respond rapidly and effectively in the event of a major incident and spill?

Maybe somebody from BOEMRE can explain that to us. Otherwise, we’re just skipping down the road to the next disaster.