Ah. So this must be the Responsible Modern Offshore Drilling we’ve all been hearing so much about. In magazines. In the newspapers. On the radio. On TV. On social media. Pretty much everywhere you look.
Except in real life.
MODIS satellite imagery taken Tuesday (June 18, 2013) shows a slick 32 miles long emanating from the Taylor Energy site, which has been reliably oozing oil into the Gulf for more than 8 years now. Strangely, there appears to be no action from the responsible party, industry, state or federal authorities to bring this ongoing travesty to a close. It’s likely this chronic leak has been generating tarballs that have been coming ashore on the Louisiana coast for years, well before the catastrophic 2010 BP / Deepwater Horizon spill.
Maybe the powers that be in Louisiana and in Congress have decided to look the other way and keep their mouths shut, while the oil and gas industry spends hundreds of million of dollars per year on advertising and lobbying to convince the American people that oil and gas production is squeaky-clean and risk-free. Maybe it’s time to spend those millions to clean up the real-life problems, instead of trying to convince us that they don’t exist, because the Gulf Monitoring Consortium and others are working hard to ensure this stuff can no longer be hidden from public view.
Why not start here? Eventually the people of Virginia and North and South Carolina who are being wooed by the promises of offshore drilling jobs and cash might begin to pay attention to industry’s inaction and politician’s lack of concern here in the Gulf. They just might have second thoughts about drilling when they imagine a Taylor-like scenario unfolding in their waters, and a steady stream of tarballs washing ashore for years in Virginia Beach, or Nag’s Head, or Myrtle Beach.
|Detail from image above, showing our measurement of the slick (80 square kilometers / 29 square miles). Assuming an average thickness of 1 micron (1/1,000th of a millimeter) this slick holds 21,120 gallons of oil.|
The 2013 hurricane season is now upon us, and it’s predicted to be a doozy this year. Which got us to thinking…
Remember that strange, persistent little oil slick about 12 miles offshore that SkyTruth discovered on satellite imagery during the BP oil spill in 2010, that was NOT related to the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster?
Remember how SouthWings flew photographer J. Henry Fair out there and came across a deepwater drill rig with a miles-long oil slick next to it?
|Oil slick at the Taylor Energy chronic leak site in Gulf of Mexico, June 5, 2010.|
When we published this, an interesting story emerged: we had found a chronic, continuous oil spill in the Gulf emanating from oil wells that were serviced by a platform at this location. “Platform 23051” as we called it (because that’s how it was identified by government data), no longer existed: it had been hit by a seafloor mudslide triggered by Hurricane Ivan waaaay back in September 2004. That’s right, six years earlier. And the damaged wells, now buried under the mud, were being slowly found, re-entered and plugged with cement by their owner — an LLC named Taylor Energy Company — using a leased drill rig called the Ocean Saratoga.
The rig disappeared for a while, then re-appeared in November 2010. It was still on the scene in March 2011, when Greenpeace flew over the site and took some photos. But we had indications from AIS vessel-tracking data that the rig had departed by June 2011. Periodic aerial overflights conducted by Gulf Monitoring Consortium and On Wings of Care, and radar satellite images acquired since June 2011, have shown no rig working to plug the wells since Ocean Saratoga’s departure. The May 2013 status report from Diamond Offshore shows the rig is contracted to work elsewhere.
One thing, however, has remained constant at the site: it’s still leaking oil and forming a persistent, miles-long slick that is routinely visible on satellite images. Occasionally it reaches out more than 20 miles from the source.
Taylor is required to report the size and location of their oil slick to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center on a daily basis. We’ve compiled all of their reports, as well as our own observations from overflights and satellite imagery. What we see on satellite images consistently contradicts Taylor’s own reports, suggesting they are systematically and significantly underreporting the size of the slick. And our analysis shows that the total spill from the Taylor site may have exceeded 1 million gallons by February 2012.
In 2013 the satellite experts at NOAA began to report their analyses of the Taylor slick to the NRC as well (the first report we noticed from NOAA came on April 7). They, too, are reporting slicks significantly bigger than what Taylor is reporting. The latest example: on June 1 at 9:00am, Taylor reported a slick 200 feet wide and 6.5 miles long. But NOAA reported a slick 1 mile wide and 20.2 miles long on a satellite image taken at 11:45am, less than three hours later. NOAA’s slick is more than 80 times bigger than what Taylor reported. And if we assume the slick is, on average, only 1/1000th of a millimeter (1 micron) thick, that amounts to at least 13,800 gallons of oil on the water. Yet the federal government has publicly stated that the leaking wells cumulatively spill only about 14 gallons per day.
We assume NOAA analysts were looking at this MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 11:45am local time on June 1. We measure the observable slick to be 21.4 miles long, reaching a maximum width of just over 5,100 feet but tapering to less than 1,500 feet at each end. Still, significantly bigger than Taylor reported:
|Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 11:45am on June 1, 2013, showing slick (bright line) apparently emanating from site of chronic leak since 2004.|
|Measurement shows slick extends more than 21 miles from the source.|
Something’s fishy here. But no matter whose numbers you believe, one nagging question is begging to be answered: When are these wells going to be permanently plugged? As time goes by, it looks like the answer is “never — we’re going to let them leak until the reservoir effectively bleeds out.” How can this be acceptable to federal government regulators and the politicians of Louisiana?
Those rushing to embrace drilling in the waters off Virginia, Alaska and elsewhere in the US might want to slow down and take a good hard look at this ongoing travesty in the Gulf.
McDuffie Coal Terminal on the south end of the Port of Mobile, supplied by coal from from as far away as Wyoming – most of which is transported by rail. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth, via SouthWings
Only one vessel was loading coal at the time of our flight, the Panama-flagged Grand Diva. This operation was depositing a black plume of coal dust in the water.
|Plume of coal dust in the water (NRC Report #1042025) off the starboard bow of the Germany-bound Grand Diva. Photo: D. Manthos – SkyTruth, via SouthWings|
As an individual case, this may not result in a significant impact on the environment. But a brief review of Google Earth’s historical imagery yields two previous events clearly showing coal in the water, and several other less-clear images that appear to show pollution, suggesting this is a common event that may result in significant cumulative impact.
Air pollution is another consideration. Chronic coal-dust blowing off the stockpiles at a coal terminal are the basis of a Clean Water Act lawsuit in Seward, Alaska, and one of the main arguments throughout the Pacific Northwest against expanding coal export terminals to move more Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming to Asian markets. This is only one step along the way from mine to market – coal trains derail far more often than you might think (in North Dakota, Michigan, and Nebraska, just this past month), loaded barges crash into bridges (just this week), terminals flood when severe storms come through, and ships even crash into the loading docks. Not counting carbon emissions from burning the coal, scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens along coal transport routes are worried that these cumulative impacts will harm public health, disrupt their daily lives, and negatively impact the ecological health of waterways along the path from mine to port.
|Bulk transport by barge is cheaper and more fuel efficient than even freight rail, but extreme weather events exaggerated by climate change threaten its reliability. Last year’s drought crippled transport on the Mississippi River at the end of 2012, and without significant rain river operators could face another low water crisis in 2013.|
More to come including a leaky settling pond, an oil slick off Gulfport, and severe erosion resulting from ill-conceived oil spill response practices on Dauphin Island. Be sure to check out the photos of the whole flight on Flickr.
SUSPECTED SLICK IS SEEN AS LONG NARROW PLUME APPROXIMATELY 95 MILES LONG AND 1 MILE OR LESS WIDE.
That sounds like bilge-dumping from a passing vessel — an activity that is illegal in US waters (and much of the rest of the world). Intrepid SkyTruth intern Patrick busted somebody for bilge-dumping off Angola last year using satellite radar imagery and AIS data. The report was submitted to the Coast Guard-operated National Response Center by image analysts at NOAA. We’re thrilled that they’ve started reporting their analyses of possible pollution incidents to the NRC, so we can easily incorporate them into our Alerts system. (We like to think our Gulf Monitoring Consortium activity helped spur NOAA to get their experts into the game in a more public way.)
NOAA’s analysts now think it’s probably not oil; more likely it’s natural surfactant caught in the convergence zone between two water masses. I agree; this is close to the edge of a loop current now in the northeastern part of the Gulf. And bilge-dump slicks usually look a lot sharper than this (see a slideshow of our examples from radar imagery).
Here’s detail from a MODIS/Terra satellite image taken at 16:50 UTC on April 14, 2013, showing the apparent slick.
|Location map showing detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image taken on April 14, 2013.|
|Detail from MODIS/Terra satellite image of slick (dark, east-west trending streak) probably caused by natural surfactants accumulating along the convergence zone between ocean currents.|
The NOAA aerial survey imagery shot in the wake of Hurricane Isaac really is helpful for assessing storm impacts. Here’s another example, showing the flooded Stolthaven chemical facility along the Mississippi River near Braithwaite, Louisiana. Someone – we think it must be the company, based on the wording – filed a pollution incident report with the National Response Center on September 11. This report popped up in our handy SkyTruth Alerts system; it claims nearly 200,000 gallons of chemicals were released, mostly ethylene glycol but including several other nasty things like styrene, xylene and cancer-causing benzene.
Nearby residents have been evacuated, and some have filed suit against the company.
Here’s what the facility looked like when NOAA flew over on August 31:
|NOAA aerial survey photography showing flooded Stolthaven chemical facility near Braithwaite, LA on August 31.|
Focusing on the northwest end of the site, we can see what appear to be slicks and/or sheen, possibly oil or other chemicals, originating from the round storage tanks and flowing downstream toward homes along English Turn Road:
|Slicks and sheen apparently migrating downstream from the Stolthaven facility (lower right) toward flooded homes (upper left).|
The flooding derailed tanker cars, damaged storage tanks, and caused other problems on the site. On a Gulf Monitoring Consortium overflight on September 10, photographer Jeffrey Dubinsky captured a series of low-altitude pics illustrating some of this damage, like this storage tank apparently pushed off its supporting foundation:
|Air photo of Stolthaven chemical facility taken during Gulf Monitoring Consortium overflight on September 10, 2012, courtesy of Jeffrey Dubinsky. See more of Jeffrey’s pics from this flight here.|
Jonathan Henderson from Gulf Restoration Network was also on the flight, and caught some great pics too, including this closeup of the dislodged tank:
|Another view of the dislodged tank, courtesy of Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network (see more of his pics from the September 10 overflight).|
Isaac was certainly a big storm, but clocked in as a relatively mild Category 1 hurricane. You would think that by now, major industrial facilities planted in the middle of Hurricane Alley would be better able to withstand such predictable storm exposure. But I guess you’d be wrong….
So, who can you believe?
According to the July 12 NRC report about the oil leaking from Site 23051, there was a spill of 7.43 gallons of oil with a visible sheen reported to be 9.3 miles in length and 200 feet wide. This report was based on observations during an overflight that occurred at 8am that day. Taylor Energy is required to fly over the site every day and report any oil in the water. We assume this is the report filed by Taylor or their contractor. Our SkyTruth Alert calculations suggest that a slick of that size should hold about 241 gallons of oil (we assume a minimum average oil slick thickness of 1 micron).
But there’s more. A “Good Samaritan” passerby (another helicopter pilot) sighted a slick 15 miles long at 2:10pm, at a location about 15 miles northeast of the Taylor leak site. This report prompted the Coast Guard to request an investigation and oil slick trajectory forecast from NOAA. We think the passerby sighted the far end of the Taylor slick.
If you look carefully at the MODIS satellite image below, taken at about 1:45pm, you can see a faint, dark streak apparently emanating from Site 23051 that appears to connect to the location of the Good Samaritan’s report. We think this is the slick reported both by Taylor and by the Good Samaritan, and we think It’s unlikely that the slick grew 6 miles in length in the 6 hours that elapsed between the Taylor report and the Good Samaritan’s report (and corresponding MODIS satellite image).
|MODIS Aqua True Color image from 7/12|
|MODIS Aqua True Color image from 7/12 with slick size shown|