Hurricane Katrina – Gulf of Mexico Oil Spills

Speaking of oil spills, SkyTruth images revealed significant spills covering a large area of the northern Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. At the time, nobody was talking about what had happened to the 4,000 offshore oil platforms – and 34,000 miles of pipeline on the seafloor – when Katrina ripped through the Gulf as a Cat 5 storm, followed a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita. Attention was rightly focused on the unfolding human tragedy, as well as the 7-9 million gallons of oil spilled from damaged pipelines, refineries and storage tanks onshore.

But for months after the storms, officials from government and industry repeatedly claimed that there were no “significant” spills in the Gulf. That line is still heard even now. Yet in May 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service published their offshore damage assessment: 113 platforms totally destroyed, and – more importantly – 457 pipelines damaged, 101 of those major lines with 10″ or larger diameter. At least 741,000 gallons were spilled from 124 reported sources (the Coast Guard calls anything over 100,000 gallons a “major” spill).

 

Wells and platforms were shut down before the storm, so leakage from those facilities was minimal. Pipelines were shut down too. But what the officials failed to mention is they don’t require industry to “purge” pipelines before a severe storm – so they were probably still loaded with oil, gas or liquid gas condensate. Any section of pipeline that was breached leaked all of that product into the Gulf within hours of the storm. That’s what we think accounts for the widespread slicks seen on the imagery from September 1 and 2, covering hundreds of square miles and obviously emanating from many points of origin. These slicks dispersed after several days of high winds offshore, as shown by our followup imagery taken on September 12, but a few problems remained as evidenced by ongoing leaks from wrecked platforms.

 

This report from MMS details the pipeline damage that occurred.

San Francisco Bay – Cosco Busan Oil Spill

On November 7 a transoceanic container ship called the Cosco Busan hit one of the supports for the SF – Oakland Bay Bridge, tearing a big gash in the side of the vessel and spilling 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil into the Bay. At first the Coast Guard seriously underestimated the size of the spill, and it took a couple of hours before containment and cleanup crews were on the scene. By then the oil had spread, and over the following week it traveled throughout much of the Bay and even out into the Pacific Ocean, washing up on beaches over a wide area.

We had a radar imaging satellite (named, appropriately enough, “Radarsat“) take a picture as it orbited over the San Francisco Bay five days later. Defenders of Wildlife, Ocean Conservancy and San Francisco Baykeeper helped pay for the image, which showed numerous slicks in the Bay and beyond the Golden Gate. Check out our gallery and the press release from Ocean Conservancy, and this video showing why the failure to contain the spill promptly lead to a much more widespread impact.

For you Google Earth users (and there are more of you every day!), we also produced this KMZ file. The story told by the imagery is summed up well by Warner Chabot at Ocean Conservancy: “…containing the oil in the first two hours is 100 times more important than chasing it all over the San Francisco Bay for the next two weeks.” Two Bay-area stations used our images in their November 20 broadcasts – CBS 5 news at noon (watch the story), and ABC 7 news at 5pm.

UPDATE 7/17/2009: The skipper of the Cosco Busan, John Cota, was just given a 10-month jail sentence for negligence leading to the illegal discharge of 53,000 gallons of oil into the Bay.

Welcome to SkyTruth!

Welcome to the new SkyTruth blog. We’ll use this space to keep you up to date on what we’re doing. And once in a while, to ask for your help when we run into problems we can’t solve, or great project ideas that we’re too maxed out to tackle.

What is SkyTruth? We’re a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization based in groovy Shepherdstown, West Virginia, about 70 miles upstream from Washington, DC. But we see SkyTruth as more than that – it’s also a noun (think “ground truth”), and we hope, a global movement to produce visual proof of our impact on the landscapes, habitats and environment of the planet to anyone who cares to see it. Our tools of choice for this mission are images and photos taken from above: from orbiting satellites and from airplanes. Our tools are “remote sensing” and geographic information systems (GIS), used to help people understand our changing world and motivate them to take action to protect and preserve the environment.

But a picture is worth a thousand words. To get a better feel for what we’ve done since we started up in 2001, start at our home page and take some time to check out our online image galleries.

We hope you’ll check out this space regularly!