BP Spill Stopped One Year Ago Today – 5,000 Spills Since Then

July 15, 2010 was a day of relief for many – even for folks up here in West Virginia – after 2-1/2 months watching helplessly as oil and gas billowed relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s runaway Macondo well. On that day one year ago, the final valve was carefully closed on an improvised “capping stack” that did the job after a string of heartbreaking failures. By that time an estimated 172 million gallons of oil had spewed directly into the Gulf, vastly exceeding the Exxon Valdez tanker spill of 1989 — making it the nation’s worst oil spill, and the world’s worst accidental spill.

Photo from “spill cam” showing oil flow shut off at last on July 15, 2010

After cumulatively covering an area the size of Oklahoma, the massive oil slicks on the Gulf’s surface began to dissipate almost immediately under the steady assault of evaporation, wind and wave action, biodegradation, photolysis, and cleanup efforts. We last observed significant oil slicks on satellite images taken July 28. But unknown amounts of oil and chemical dispersant lingered beneath the ocean’s surface, out of sight, with an uncertain fate and as-yet untallied environmental consequences.  What is clear is that this spill caused significant economic damage to the Gulf seafood and tourism industries, upsetting the lives and livelihoods of people as far away as Virginia. And oil from the spill continues to wash ashore along the Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass any new laws governing offshore drilling safety.  In fact, they are going backwards by reducing funding for government inspections and oversight — despite the fact that the oil industry itself requested more funding for BOEMRE, the agency that manages offshore drilling.

Other frustrations?  The lack of progress in creating a national oil spill cleanup capability that has a fighting chance against the next major spill; the continued reliance on chemical dispersants as an effective cleanup tool, despite evidence suggesting they may do more harm than good; our serendipitous discovery of a chronic, 7-years-and-counting leak that is continually polluting the Gulf; the regular occurrence of “mystery spills” that never get resolved; the laughable results of a system that naively hopes polluters will accurately report their spills; the lack of consistent fines for polluters, a moral hazard that encourages sloppy operations and risk taking, all but ensuring another major disaster.

Oh yeah, and the 5,100 new oil and other hazardous materials spills in the Gulf region reported to the National Response Center since July 15, 2010.  Here are the 3,000 reports that have enough usable location information for us to pinpoint them on a map:

NRC oil and hazardous materials spill reports, July 15, 2010 – July 15, 2011

The inevitable conclusion?  Concerned individuals and citizen’s groups, like our Gulf Monitoring Consortium, have to take it upon themselves to investigate, understand, and publicize what’s really going on with pollution and offshore drilling. You can help us by submitting your observations and photos to our Gulf Oil Spill Tracker site. And next week we’ll unveil the SkyTruth Alerts system, a continually updated interactive map of reported pollution incidents nationwide, onshore and off.

Closing The Book on This One – For Now

So there have been lots of questions and not very many answers over the past few weeks regarding the status of leaking wells in the Gulf. Where are they? Are they leaking? How much? Who owns them? Questions led to more questions, so the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) took action to get to the bottom of things.

A possible spill was originally reported off of Venice, LA (see our blog) on June 8. Later that same day, an oil slick in that general vicinity was sampled and tested by scientists from National Wildlife Federation and LSU, who determined this was fresh crude oil unrelated to the BP spill. On June 10 our GMC partners at SouthWings took Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network on a flight to see where that leak was coming from, but they didn’t find anything near the coordinates where the leak was originally reported.

However, they DID stumble across an actively leaking well not far away, in Breton Sound. You can read Jonathan Henderson’s blog here. Below is the well, obviously leaking, photographed on June 10, 2011 during the overflight. You can see all the photos taken on that flight here.

Photo taken on June 10 by Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network

Many, many thanks go out to the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, who on June 17 went out in a boat to inspect that well in Breton Sound. Paul and Michael Orr went out check the status of the well head. What they found was that this well was no longer leaking but there was a distinct petroleum odor on site. The well looked somewhat battered, as if it was hit by a vessel, but there was no oil leaking from it.

Photos taken on June 17, 2011 by Jeffrey Dubinsky

You can check out their gallery and see not only the well in question but the other shots they took of the declining oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf, like this one:
Photo taken on June 17, 2011 by Jeffrey Dubinsky

Hopefully this puts to rest the saga of the leaking well in Breton Sound for now, but the Gulf Monitoring Consortium is hard at work keeping an eye on things, because sadly there will, no doubt, be many more leaks to investigate.

Announcing: the Gulf Monitoring Consortium

Today, SkyTruth, SouthWings, and Waterkeeper Alliance launch the Gulf Monitoring Consortium: an innovative partnership that is systematically monitoring oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-water observation and sampling. This unique effort led by three non-profit organizations will collect and publish images, observations and sampling data of the Gulf of Mexico to rapidly respond to reported and suspected oil pollution incidents.

Read the full news release.

At SkyTruth we’re always looking for ways to get reliable and timely ground truth information to accompany our satellite images; it helps the images tell a fuller story. Working with SouthWings, we can get pilots and observers up in the air to investigate spill reports and corroborate indications of pollution on satellite imagery. Waterkeeper can mobilize folks on the coast and the water, in coordination with satellite overpasses and aerial overflights, to get up-close documentation and samples of suspected pollution.

This newly formed alliance will actively bear witness to current, ongoing, and future oil pollution to fill the information gap exposed since the tragic BP / Deepwater Horizon explosion one year ago. During the BP spill SkyTruth, SouthWings and the Waterkeeper Alliance detected and documented an unrelated, chronic leak from a platform destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. And you probably recall that for several days following the oil spill that came ashore March 20 in Grand Isle, Louisiana, government officials provided little information to the public on the source or severity of the pollution. Concerned citizens, NGOs and the media scrambled to figure out what was happening, and requested help from our organizations. And the more we look into it, the more we find that official government pollution reports, in many cases submitted by the polluters themselves, are internally inconsistent and dont match what we observe on satellite images.
Damaging rumors and speculation take hold in the absence of good information, leading people in Gulf communities still reeling from the BP disaster to fear the worst whenever oil comes ashore: another major offshore spill. That’s why we’ve formed this alliance with SouthWings and Waterkeeper, to systematically and efficiently evaluate reported or suspected pollution incidents in a coordinated approach from space, from the air, and on the water, so we can fill this critical information gap.

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information by space, air and water in order to investigate and expose oil pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re actively seeking partner organizations to join us in this effort.