Monday, May 03, 2010

"A Massive and Potentially Unprecedented Environmental Disaster"

May 2: President Obama spent Sunday (May 2) touring the Gulf Coast area and getting a first-hand look at the ongoing response from the Federal government to the BP oil spill. After speaking to Admiral Thad Allen, who is serving as National Incident Commander, along with Coast Guard personnel, the President gave an update from Venice, Louisiana.
    The President said, "I think the American people are now aware, certainly the folks down in the Gulf are aware, that we're dealing with a massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster. The oil that is still leaking from the well could seriously damage the economy and the environment of our Gulf states and it could extend for a long time. It could jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who call this place home. And that's why the federal government has launched and coordinated an all-hands-on-deck, relentless response to this crisis from day one. After the explosion on the drilling rig, it began with an aggressive search-and-rescue effort to evacuate 115 people, including three badly injured. And my thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the 11 workers who have not yet  -- who have not been found. 
    "When the drill unit sank on Thursday, we immediately and intensely investigated by remotely operated vehicles the entire 5,000 feet of pipe that's on the floor of the ocean.  In that process, three leaks were identified, the most recent coming just last Wednesday evening.  As Admiral Allen and Secretary Napolitano have made clear, we've made preparations from day one to stage equipment for a worse-case scenario.  We immediately set up command center operations here in the Gulf and coordinated with all state and local governments. . . So I want to emphasize, from day one we have prepared and planned for the worst, even as we hoped for the best. . ."
    According to some experts, the worst case scenario could be far worse than what has been generally reported. Following initial reports that their were no leaks of oil, estimates by BP and government sources said their may be 1,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking from the well. While that seemed like a lot, those estimates were subsequently updated to 5,000 barrels of oil per day. Now there are several reports that 20,000 to 25,000 barrels per day might be a more realistic estimate.
    However, Environmental Attorney Stuart Smith of Smith Stag Law Firm, New Orleans, who is representing commercial fisherman and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network relative to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, issued a release on April 30 saying, "I believe there is a strong possibility of a total failure of the BP Deepwater Horizon fluid control system. According to experts in the industry I have spoken to confidentially, the pipes from which the oil is currently leaking act as a choke on the oil flowing from the formation. A catastrophic failure could easily result in the release of 60,000 to 160,000 barrels of oil per day." Smith says, "In a worst case scenario, this amount of oil would constitute one Valdez every two days. At that rate of release, there could easily be a significant threat not only to the environment but to public health for those downwind of the oil slick. Air discharges of components of oil, such as benzene a known human carcinogen, and other volatile organic compounds could be significant. . ."
    Also, there have been further reports on the issue raised by Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in a letter to the President on April 29 [See WMS 4/30/10]. Senator Nelson indicated that the Interior Department (DOI) in 2000 issued an alert calling for "reliable backup systems" in the event of a rig blowout. He said a decision was made in 2003 not to call for the "additional line of defense" and he has requested the DOI Inspector General to investigate the matter. Mike Papantonio, an environmental lawyer, representing Louisiana shrimpers indicated in an interview on the Ed Show that an "acoustic switch" would have prevented the catastrophe -- it's a failsafe that shuts the flow of oil off at the source. He said they cost only about half a million dollars each, and are required in off-shore drilling platforms other countries but not the United States. He said, "This was one of the new deregulations devised by Dick Cheney during his secret meetings with the oil industry at the beginning of Bush's first term."
    An April 28 article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) discusses the issue of the acoustic switch. The article indicates that, "the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in simulations, are intended as a last resort." But, it is reported that the major oil-producing countries of Norway and Brazil require them. WSJ reports that the "U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well. . . By 2003, U.S. regulators decided remote-controlled safeguards needed more study. A report commissioned by the Minerals Management Service said 'acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly.'"
    In his press briefing President Obama emphasized, "Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak; BP will be paying the bill.  But as President of the United States, I'm going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues.  And we will spare no resource to clean up whatever damage is caused.  And while there will be time to fully investigate what happened on that rig and hold responsible parties accountable, our focus now is on a fully coordinated, relentless response effort to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the Gulf."
    A report from the Press-Register (Mobile, AL & surrounding communities) entitled, "Leaked report: Government fears Deepwater Horizon well could become unchecked gusher," indicates that the leak may be on the order of 50,000 barrels a day, or 2.1 million gallons a day. The article quotes Stephen Sears, chairman of the petroleum engineering department at Louisiana State University as saying, "Typically, a very good well in the Gulf can produce 30,000 barrels a day, but that's under control. I have no idea what an uncontrolled release could be."
    One of the first economic impacts of the spill is that NOAA has issued a notice that it is restricting fishing for a minimum of ten days in Federal waters most affected by the BP oil spill, largely between Louisiana State waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River to waters off Florida's Pensacola Bay (a map is available). The closure is effective immediately. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator, who met with more than 100 fishermen in Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish on April 30, said, "NOAA scientists are on the ground in the area of the oil spill taking water and seafood samples in an effort to ensure the safety of the seafood and fishing activities. I heard the concerns of the Plaquemines Parish fishermen as well other fishermen and state fishery managers about potential economic impacts of a closure. Balancing economic and health concerns, this order closes just those areas that are affected by oil. There should be no health risk in seafood currently in the marketplace."
    Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Administrator said, "There are finfish, crabs, oysters and shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico near the area of the oil spill. The Gulf is such an important biologic and economic area in terms of seafood production and recreational fishing." According to NOAA, there are 3.2 million recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico region who took 24 million fishing trips in 2008. Commercial fishermen in the Gulf harvested more than 1 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish in 2008.
    NOAA has posted information and links on filing damage claims with BP (See link below). Also those who are not satisfied with BP's resolution, there is an additional avenue for assistance available through the Coast Guard once BP has finalized your claim. The NOAA release provides more information about what types of damages are eligible for compensation under the Oil Pollution Act and details.
    Access a blog post on the President's update with links to the complete speech and related information (click here). Access the release from attorney Stuart Smith (click here) and further extensive information (click here). Access a link to the Ed Show video interview with attorney Mike Papantonio (click here). Access a lengthy WSJ article on the acoustic switch (click here). Access the Press-Register article (click here). Access a release from NOAA (click here). Access the Department of Interior special Deepwater Horizon website (click here). Access a special EPA website on the BP spill (click here). Access further updates on a joint companies and government unified command website (click here).

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