The ever-expanding oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon still-open well site is 20 miles off the coast of Louisiana as of Tuesday night, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. In less than a week's time, the oil has spread to cover an expanse of the the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles wide by 45 miles long at its widest.
"It is the closest it's been to shore throughout this response, and we're paying attention to that, very careful attention to that," said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry. She added that if the spill isn't contained, it has the potential to become "one of the most significant oil spills in U.S. history."
The U.S. Coast Guard is contemplating a "controlled burn" to try to prevent the spill from reaching the ecologically fragile Louisiana coastline, the NY Times reported. Current wind projections suggest the oil will not come ashore in the next 72 hours and late Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official told the Wall Street Journal that oil is expected to hit shore by Saturday if it is somehow not stopped.
The precise location where the oil spill will first make landfall is still not know. "If some of the weather conditions continue, the Delta area is at risk," said Charlie Henry, NOAA scientific support coordinator told the NY Times.
"It is going to land eventually," said Doug Helton, the incident operations coordinator for NOAA's emergency response division. The winds could change on Wednesday and push the spill toward the Mississippi Delta.
A 'mass of oil' will wash ashore in Alabama and Mississippi as soon as Friday, the Mobile Press-Register reported.
But the marshes of Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish will likely receive the heaviest dose of crude, according to Gregory William Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University and the creator of a scientific model that predicts how winds, waves and surface currents behave in the Gulf of Mexico.
"What worries us in southeast Louisiana, you can see that everything, winds, waves and surface currents, will be toward the north and northwest," Stone said Tuesday afternoon.
"In one way, that will contain the oil plume and keep it very focused instead of spread out. That will mean a lot of Alabama's coast will get impacted, but not the way Mississippi, the Chandeleur Islands and St. Bernard Parish are going to be."
The spill is ongoing and will continue to grow. "The locations where oil first makes landfall this weekend will not be the only places affected. With the spill likely to continue for months, other areas of the Gulf Coast will be at the mercy of ever-shifting winds."
Exactly how much damage the oil will do once comes ashore is hard to estimate. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists have compiled a list of more than 400 species, from tuna to trout, that are in danger from the spill. The Times-Picayune reported:
"We've had spills before, but they have always been inshore and covered much smaller areas," said Karen Foote, a biologist administrator with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "This is something that will impact miles of offshore water, the coast and inshore areas, and we have nothing to compare it to. And we don't know the amount of oil that's coming in, and the toxicity of the oil that's coming."
The spill is floating toward the coast at a particularly vulnerable time for its vast fisheries resources. The reproductive cycle is starting for many important estuarine species, including oysters, shrimp, speckled trout and a host of smaller species unknown to consumers but important in the food chain for other commercially valuable species.
"Something like 95 percent of all the fisheries in the Gulf depend on estuaries for some part of their life cycle, so putting oil in these habitats is not a good thing, and if that happens we'll see losses and closures," said Mark Schexnayder, a biologist with the LSU Sea Grant program.
The spill is near endangered species and fisheries, the Houston Chronicle reported. If the spill washes ashore in habitats like mangrove swamps or marshes, then the oil will be that much harder to mitigate.
"If this oil reaches the coast, there will be some pretty severe impacts to these habitats," said Tom Minello, a Galveston-based ecologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Approximately 250 million pounds of oysters are harvested from Louisiana's reefs. This $300 million a year business is in jeopardy from the spill. Breton Sound, which is on the eastern side of the Mississippi's River's mouth, is one of America's "most productive fisheries for shrimp and oysters". Even if the oil doesn't kill the oysters, the contamination will make them inedible, according to Mike Voisin, president of oyster processor Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, Louisiana.
Coastal birds are also threatened by the spill. Dozens of species, including brown pelicans, laughing gulls, and royal terns nest on Breton and Chandeleur barrier islands.
Fragile beach-dune habitat at Breton National Wildlife Refuge. / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo
Brown pelicans at Breton National Wildlife Refuge. / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo
The Breton National Wildlife Refuge is the nation's second oldest refuge, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "President Theodore Roosevelt heard about the destruction of birds and their eggs on Chandeleur and Breton Islands in 1904 and soon afterward created Breton NWR. He visited the Island in June of 1915, this is the only refuge Roosevelt ever visited."
"It's a pristine area," Eugene Turner, a Louisiana State University ecologist, told the Houston Chronicle. "I can't think of anything good that could come from this."
Forty percent of the nation's wetlands are in this part of Louisiana. "Those delicate coastal rookeries and estuaries factor into the consideration for the surface burn. Such a burn would most likely ease the impact on wildlife," according to the NY Times. NOAA issued the following advice concerning the burn:
"Based on our limited experience, birds and mammals are more capable of handling the risk of a local fire and temporary smoke plume than of handling the risk posed by a spreading oil slick. Birds flying in the plume can become disoriented, and could suffer toxic effects. This risk, however, is minimal when compared to oil coating and ingestion."
The Coast Guard is considering an "in situ burn" in an attempt to keep the oil from reaching the Louisiana shoreline and coastal estuaries. The controlled burn has the potential to destroy 50 to 95 percent of the oil on the surface. "It's not always easy to implement," NOAA's Charlie Henry said, but it's been used in the past. "The burns are conducted within fire resistant containment rings.The oil is either ignited from a helicopter or a boat," the Times-Picayune reported.
Landry said the Coast Guard could begin to use the burn method as early as Wednesday, "fully understanding that there are benefits and tradeoffs," including impacts to air quality and the safety of workers involved.
"This is a very, very controlled situation, but possibly a highly effective option. We won't know that until we get out and use it," she said. "It's a tool in the toolkit. I want to have it at my availability as an option all the way through. We're possibly 90 days out from securing the source permanently."
"Admiral Landry said that a burn would take place offshore where no one on land could see it," according to the NY Times. The burn is far from a perfect solution, since it leaves behind a "leaves waxy residue that can either be skimmed from the surface or sink to the bottom of the ocean." The "black plume" of smoke from the burning oil will also put particulates into the air.
The oil spill continues to grow with each passing hour the well remains open. Just between Monday and Tuesday night, the oil spill area tripled in size, the Houston Chronicle reported, and with underwater efforts by remotely-controlled robot submarines to close valves on the well, an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil per day continues to gush out into the waters of the Gulf.
Here is what the oil spill looked like from space on Tuesday.
The blog SkyTruth estimated on Tuesday that the rate of oil being spilled may be much higher than state. SkyTruth estimates that possibly 6 million gallons have leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well so far.
We have a visible oil slick covering 2,233 square miles (5,783 km2). Given a minimum thickness of 1 micron..., that is 5,783 cubic meters of oil, or 1,527,706 gallons (36,374 barrels)...
Today a BP exec claimed that 3% of the slick was 100 microns thick, and the remaining 97% is only one or two molecules thick. We're skeptical: 1 micron is the published, generally accepted lower limit for a visible sheen at sea...
So if 3% of today's slick (173.5 km2) is 100 microns thick, and the remainder (5,609.5 km2) is 1 micron thick that's a total of 22,960 cubic meters of oil: 6,065,390 gallons.
The base of one of the largest pollution containment chambers ever built.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley
The drill rig, owned by Transocean, was about 50 miles from shore when it exploded last Tuesday, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead. One injured person remains hospitalized from the rig's crew of 126. The rig burned for two days before sinking in 5,000 feet of water last Thursday.
BP was leasing the rig and federal law holds the oil giant responsible for the clean up. "A BP official estimated that the company is spending more than $6 million a day in efforts to contain the oil spill," the Times-Picayune reported.
The disaster will continue to get worse since all efforts to shut the flow of oil from the well have been unsuccessful so far. As many as eight remote-controlled submersibles were deployed by BP crews on Tuesday in an effort to trigger the shutoff valve on the blowout preventer. Activating the rams inside the blowout preventer (BOP) would be the quickest method to stop the flow of oil from the damaged well.
Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production, said efforts with subs to close the BOP will continue "until exhausted or successful", but he cautioned closing the BOP may not be possible, Upstream, an oil & gas publication, reported.
"We don’t know the condition inside that blowout preventer," Suttles explained. "We don’t know which technique will ultimately be successful. So what we’re doing is working all these techniques in parallel."
"We know the quickest way is to stop it at the current BOP, but we also know that may not be successful, so that’s why we’re progressing up to two relief wells in planning and permitting."
"We want to bring this to conclusion absolutely as fast as possible," he added.
The Times-Picayune reports that "other alternatives to permanently containing the spill could be three months away... In the event the blowout preventer cannot be activated, BP is also working to build a series of containment domes that would be placed underwater to corral the oil and allow it to be pumped to storage tanks on nearby ships."
The containment dome system has never been used in the deep-water Gulf.
"The issue is to make certain it can withstand the pressure of the much deeper water at the side and to be able to sort out the various topsides processing issues," BP executive Byron Grote is quoted as saying by Upstream. "But presuming we can get all that squared away - and we are – this could be a solution in four weeks or less."
As of Tuesday morning, the Deepwater Horizon response team said a fleet of 49 vessels, including skimmers, tugs, and barges, had recovered 1,152 barrels (43,384 gallons) of an oil-water mix. 29,140 gallons of dispersant had been deployed on the oil spill and an additional 119,734 gallons remained available.
A rig is on scene for drilling a relief well, Upstream reported. "BP is pushing ahead with plans to spud a relief well... with the Transocean’s semi-submersible rig Development Driller now on standby after arriving on location today in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico." BP's Grote "estimated the well would take two to three months to drill and is expected to cost BP about $100 million".
The explosion came almost three weeks after the Obama administration eased a ban on offshore oil drilling that opened up part of the Atlantic coast and more of the Gulf of Mexico to exploratory drilling. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he expected this disaster would not change the administration's position supporting more offshore drilling.
On Tuesday, Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist told reporters, "If this doesn't give somebody pause, there's something wrong."
For more background on this slow-motion disaster, please see diaries tagged Deepwater Horizon, including my four previous diaries: