Cleanup crews are working to contain what experts are calling a substantial oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study of satellite and aerial survey images, ship tracking data and interviews with local officials and others involved in the response to the spill.
The spill, one of several plumes spotted off the Louisiana coast in the wake of Hurricane Ida, was identified in satellite images captured Thursday by space tech companies Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies.
A black expanse and rainbow of at least 10 miles spread in coastal waters about two miles from Port Fourchon, an oil and gas hub. An aerial view of the spill was captured Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The powerful hurricane, which slammed through one of the country’s largest chemical, petroleum and natural gas hubs on Sunday, has raised concerns about the vulnerability of the region’s fossil fuel infrastructure to intensifying storms linked to global warming. the earth caused by oil and gas emissions.
It was unclear how much oil had spilled into the Gulf, according to a person with direct knowledge of the cleanup. The spill, possibly from an old pipeline that was disused and damaged by the storm, was first spotted Monday from reconnaissance flights led by a number of producers on the Gulf coast, and was reported to the Coast Guard, the person said. who are not authorized to speak publicly about the clean-up operation.
At the end of Saturday two more boats showed up to help clean up. James Hanzalik, Deputy Director of Clean Gulf Associates, a non-profit oil spill co-operative founded by industry, confirmed Friday afternoon that there was a leak and a cleanup was underway.
Lt. US Coast Guard John Edwards said the spill was believed to be crude oil from an old pipeline owned by Houston-based oil and gas exploration company Talos Energy. A cleanup vessel hired by Talos used skimmers to retrieve the oil and had placed a containment boom in the area to try to contain the spread, he said. Talos Energy declined to comment on the record.
The Coast Guard boats hadn’t arrived yet, Lieutenant Edwards said, but the agency had heard from Talos that only 42 gallons of material had been recovered from the water so far. The agency has launched a preliminary investigation, he added.
Several experts who studied the viaduct and satellite imagery said the spill was ongoing and appeared to be significant.
“It’s a substantial leak that requires further investigation,” said Oscar Garcia-Pineda, a scientist at Water Mapping, a Gulf Breeze, Florida-based consultancy that has led research into the use of satellite and aerial imagery for oil spills. “I see an indication of thick heavy oil, the main dark feature, surrounded by a rainbow sheen,” he said. Wednesday’s flyover image appeared to show the leak started underwater.
The area was known for its dense pipelines, and in the past powerful storms have caused mudslides that can damage pipes or even the foundations of platforms that contain equipment that pumps oil and gas from the seafloor, he said.
Cathleen E. Jones, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who has participated in flyovers to assess storm damage, said the images suggested very thick oil was leaking and more research was needed.
“In a case like this where you obviously have thick oil, you can calculate the area, but what you don’t know is how thick it is,” she said. But based on the color, she said, “That’s a very, very thick slick.”
The likely origin of the Talos disaster was first noted by John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at The Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto, who had examined the images of Ida’s damage.
“The fact that it was possible to find this spill is due to NOAA making aerial images public,” he said. “Had NOAA not made that public, it would have been a lot harder to discover what is clearly an unfolding environmental problem.”
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that there appeared to be a long oil slick off the Louisiana coast several miles east of the Talos disaster. It was unclear whether that slick had anything to do with each other.
Overpass and satellite images showed multiple other slicks along the Louisiana coast. The person with knowledge of the cleanup said it was possible that leaks from other sources also contributed to the plume.
The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore oil and gas rigs, said in a media update that as of Friday morning, workers had been evacuated from 133 production rigs and six oil rigs. More than 90 percent of oil and gas production in the Gulf was still shut down, the agency said.
The agency’s update made no mention of the ongoing cleanup. After the inspections are completed, production facilities without damage will be “immediately brought back online,” it said. Calls to the agency, as well as the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, went unanswered.
An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman, Janie Acevedo-Beauchamp, referred questions to the Coast Guard, which handles spills in coastal waters. The EPA remained “committed to deploying resources at our disposal to help communities affected by the storm,” she said.
Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans environmental group, said the spill was the latest sign that the pollution caused by the hurricane was widespread. “The companies that are poisoning our communities must be held accountable and undo this catastrophe,” she said.
A report published earlier this year by the US Government Accountability Office found that since the 1960s, federal regulators have allowed Gulf oil and gas producers to leave some 28,000 miles of pipeline on the seafloor. Those pipelines, about 97 percent of the area’s decommissioned pipelines, are often abandoned without being cleaned or buried.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed an oil rig about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana. It caused what is still the longest oil spill in United States history.