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This flight was made possible with financial support from Flightlinefirst.com.  
Thank You for helping On Wings Of Care protect the Gulf! 
 

2012 May 30 Wednesday
Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles south of Louisiana's Delta

Today we investigated a reported rig fire at an Energy XXI platform just 20 miles south of Louisiana, as well as the site of chronic pipeline leakage from a Taylor Energy platform damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and several other reported and newly-found oil slicks east of Venice, LA.  Conclusions from today's flight are given below.

The news report came to us simultaneously with emails from concerned citizens and an NRC report from Skytruth.org:  a fire had occurred the night of Tuesday-Wednesday May 29-30 on a platform owned by Energy XXI about 20 miles south of Southwest Pass on the Louisiana delta, injuring one worker and necessitating the evacuation of seven others.  (See NRC report #1012954 and Skytruth description here.) The report said

"... SMOKE AND FLAMES ABOARD AN OFFSHORE OIL PLATFORM IN THE GULF OF MEXICO * PLATFORM SOUTH PASS 93B, OIL AND NATURAL GAS PLATFORM FOR ENERGY 21 HAS BEEN EVACUATED AND SHUT IN * ONE OF THE 100 BARREL TANKS IS ON FIRE WITH APPROX 20 BARRELS OF PRODUCT IN IT * PRODUCT IS A MIXTURE OF TOLUENE, XYLENE, AND DIESEL * ONE FIRE FIGHTING VESSEL IS ON SCENE WITH MORE VESSELS EN ROUTE * A CG CASA HAS BEEN DIVERTED ALONG WITH SMALL BOAT FROM CG STATION VENICE * THERE IS A POSSIBILITY OF FIRE SPREADING, BUT FIRE HAS NOT SPREAD YET."  

By Wednesday morning, there were few reports being carried by mainstream media (see, e.g., this media report) and minimal additional information about the cause of the fire or the extent of any pollution incident.  Since there were also several other NRC pollution incidents reported within the past three days in close proximity to the Louisiana delta from southwest to southeast and east of it, we were interested in flying out to check out all of them. On receiving promises of contributions to help cover the costs of a flight, we loaded the coordinates of all of those recent pollution reports into our GPS, and off we went.  

The NRC report for this rig fire gave its lat/lon coordinates to great precision -- five decimal places (close to one meter; it was given as N28.652538°, W089.390134°).  It's hard to beat that kind of precision, in fact our GPS unit couldn't even accommodate it; we rounded it to our GPS waypoint #0289 below. When we arrived at those coordinates shortly after 2pm CDT, there were several rigs in the near vicinity, no US Coast Guard or other rescue vessels, and the rig whose location most closely matched the target coordinates looked normal from our 500' vantage point.  We saw no appreciable evidence of pollution on the water.  After making several circles (see video and photos, as well as our Flight Tracks and Flight Log appended below), we decided to move on to the Taylor slick and other reported pollution incidents -- a Shell slick east of Venice (NRC Report #1012988) and a few others north and northeast of the Taylor slick.

Here are two maps of our flight path.  Our usual tactic, as time and fuel permit, is to fly directly over the slicks so as to show their extent.  Details regarding the Taylor slick are provided below, together with some MODIS satellite imagery from today of that area.  

NOTE:  Unless noted, no photos or video provided by On Wings Of Care are "photoshopped" or otherwise altered in any way that could degrade accurate interpretation of what we observed.



Approach to the Energy 21 platform

Here is a short video of what it looks like as one flies out toward the Energy XXI platform.  There are platforms in every direction as one passes southward of the Louisiana coastline.  As you view the video, don't confuse cloud shadows with anything really in the water.  We passed a very large number of small menhaden bait balls all along our route out to this plaform.

 

Between the south coast of LA and the Taylor Energy Site
A variety of interesting sites occurred between the LA coastline, the Energy XXI site, and the Taylor Energy site.  Many large ships were anchored off the coast, presumably waiting to come up the river.  Then we saw four identical dark blue ships that we guessed were deep sea fishing boats who use nets.  There was also lots of foam, indicating organic matter of some sort, perhaps not unrelated to all of the menhaden.  (Maybe some readers could educate us on these things?)


 


Taylor Energy Site
To our eyes today the sheen at Taylor did not appear very thick, and we didn't see as much of the rainbow sheen as we had seen last Tuesday May 22.  To compare with our flight maps above, here are two maps of the MODIS satellite imagery for this area today (courtesy of Skytruth).  The northwest "corner" of the slick was approximately at our GPS waypoint #0291.  (Point #0286 is included on this map because that was the southwest corner of the slick on May 22.)  The slick extended farther to the southeast than we could afford to follow; we estimated visually that we turned around about 1.5-2 miles north of the southeast end of the slick.  Our estimated total extent of the slick is corroroborated by the satellite imagery. We estimated the length of the slick from NW to SE to be about 7-8 nm, and its width about 1.4 nm, giving a total area of about 10--11 sq nm, or about 10-11,000 acres.  The MODIS imagery, which we did not see until 24 hours after our flight, was accompanied by an analysis that estimated the area of the slick to be 11,000 acres!  We can definitely give a nod of confidence to that!  

What is disconcerting, however, is the sobering realizing that for us to be able to see this slick so clearly from 500' or higher moving at 70 kts and faster, and to discern a thickness to it, means that it could well be at least one micron in thickness (about the thickness of a human hair).  One acre of oil one micron thick would fill about one US gallon.  So 11,000 acres of one-micron thick oil would fill 11,000 gallons, or about 250 barrels!  That is not a trivial spill.  And it has been present and continuing for years, likely since Hurricane Ivan destroyed the original platform in 2004.  What total cumulative volume of pollutant does that amount to??

 

In contrast to our sighting and to the MODIS satellite imagery, there have been approximately bi-daily NRC reports issued by "an aerial observer" estimating the Taylor oil slick to cover areas typically no more than about 300 acres.  Sure enough, the NRC report issued on Tuesday May 29 estimated an area of 280 acres and a volume of 3.19 gallons.  Note that if one assumes that a slick or sheen is approximately 1 micron thick in order for it to be easily visible from an aircraft flying above, 280 acres would correspond to somewhat more than 280 US gallons.  (One acre of one-micron thick oil will fill a volume of about 1.07 US gal.) Their estimate of 3.19 gal would be consistent if their 280 acres averaged a thickness of only 10 nanometers.  It would be quite remarkable for this aerial observer to be able to detect a sheen only 10 nanometers in thickness!  A human white blood cell is 1000 times thicker than that (about 10 microns in diameter).  A virus is about ten times thicker (about 100 nanometers).  The diameter of a hydrogen atom is one-tenth of a nanometer.  One can't help but wonder what instruments besides the human eye said "aerial observer" might be using to estimate the volume of oil polluting the Gulf from the leaking pipelines at the Taylor Energy site!  Here is that recent NRC report from "an aerial observer" over the Taylor site:

"NRC Report ID: 1012927

Incident Time: 2012-05-29 09:00:00
Nearest City: LA
Location: GULF OF MEXICO LAT: 28N 56' .16" LONG: 88W 58' .13"
Incident Type: PLATFORM
Material: OIL: CRUDE
Medium Affected: WATER
Suspected Responsible Party: TAYLOR ENERGY
SkyTruth Analysis
Lat/Long: 28.933378, -88.966703 (Explicit)
Reported Sheen Size: 800 feet by 2.9 miles (area 281.21 acres)
Reported Spill Volume: 3.19 gallons
SkyTruth Minimum Estimate: 300.63 gallons
Report Description
CALLER IS REPORTING A DISCHARGE OF CRUDE OIL FROM A DAMAGED PLATFORM AS A RESULT OF HURRICANE IVAN."

Here are some photos of the Taylor Energy site today, followed by some videos.

 

Shell oil slick east of Venice, LA
After leaving the Taylor site, we proceeded northward very close to the southeast shores of Louisiana.  The reported Shell slick was easy to see, its west end was within a few miles of land and its extent from northwest to southeast was about about three miles. The NRC report for this sheen described it as about 300 feet wide and 2.5 miles long, covering an area of about 90 acres. When we saw it, about 22 hours later, it had apparently stretched out a bit in length.   (GPS Waypoint #s 0290, 0292, and 0293 in our Flight Log below.)

NRC Report ID: 1012988
Incident Time: 2012-05-29 17:30:00
Nearest City: LA
Location: UNKNOWN SHEEN INCIDENT BLOCK 69 LAT:29-12-74N LONG:88-58-50W
Incident Type: UNKNOWN SHEEN
Material: UNKNOWN OIL
Medium Affected: WATER
Suspected Responsible Party: SHELL
SkyTruth Analysis
Lat/Long: 29.220556, -88.980556 (Explicit)
Reported Sheen Size: 300 feet by 2.5 miles (area 90.91 acres)
SkyTruth Minimum Estimate: 97.19 gallons
Report Description
A HELICOPTER OBSERVED A SHEEN. THE SHEEN IS IN THE VICINITY OF A SHELL PIPELINE.

Here's what the Shell oil slick looked like to our eyes:

 


More slicks 

We were sorely tempted to fly northeastward to investigate other slicks, some reported and some previously documented by us as being significant in size.  But time and finances kept us disciplined, and we proceeded directly back toward Lakefront Airport.  But as luck (or facts of oil in the Gulf) would have it, another 20 miles brought us directly overhead two more oblong slicks, separated from one another by less than a mile.  These are about 10 miles north of Buras and just southeast of Black Bay (GPS Waypoint #0294 in our Flight Log below).

Here's what these oblong slicks looked like to us:


Conclusions from this flight:  

1.  No significant pollution events in the populated platform area to the south and southwest and within 30 miles of the tip of the Louisiana delta.

2.  The Taylor Energy site continues to produce a substantial oil slick covering over 10,000 acres.  Its easily visible nature suggests an average thickness approaching 1 micron, implying a spill volume of over 10,000 gallons, or about 250 barrels of oil.  On Wings Of Carei has been documenting this slick to be of this size for over a year now.  (See, e.g., other reports on this website dated Feb 29, April 6, April 12, and May 22, 2012 or, in 2011, dated Jul 01, Aug 19, Aug 20, Sep 21, Dec 09, Dec 20, and Dec 30!) It could certainly be argued that this degree of pollution can be assumed to have existed since Hurricane Ivan destroyed the platform in 2004. It seems overdue to have a scientifically credible estimate of the flow rate and total volume of pollution that has entered the Gulf as a result of this unfortunate accident.

3.  Numerous isolated oil slicks and sheens exist throughout the near coastal waters of Louisiana.  About half to two-thirds of them are easily associated with nearby platforms; the others might be pipeline leaks, but if that has been established, we have not seen such reports.  

4.  We sure would like to find information that would give us, and all citizens, oil companies, and government agencies, a quantitative and factual understanding of the extent of ocean pollution that results from working production platforms and pipelines, and from abandoned platforms and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.  Does that exist somewhere, and does it suggest that the sheens and slicks we have witnessed and documented in the coastal waters of Louisiana are typical of what has been going on for decades, and what can be expected in the future?

 

********** FLIGHT LOG 20120530 OWOC Gulf Flight ************

On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20120530, Wednesday
Energy 21 Rig Fire, Taylor Energy, Shell & other slicks near and south of Louisiana Delta

All waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks shown in today's article at OnWingsOfCare.org.
Times are given in CDT.  
Lat/lons are given in degrees and decimal minutes.
Aircraft:  N4784E  Bonny Schumaker with Brayton Matthews as videographer.
Equipment: Sony HDR-CX550 video camera.
Seas and weather:  Seas 2-4 ft, hazy, 10-15 kt winds from the west.  Visibility fair.

[Vague rule of thumb for reporting spatial extents of slicks:  1000
estimating volume of slick: assume 1 micron thickness if otherwise unknown.  Then 50 m by 1 nm = 26 gal.  1 nm = 2000m (or 1 sq km = 264 gal).]

Note: The following waypoints are not all in chronological order by our flight path, because waypoints 0289 and 0290 were pre-set points.

0289. (Pre-set waypoint for Energy 21 rig fire location, NRC #1012954).
N28 39.152 W89 23.408
Per NRC report: 

"DISTRICT RECEIVED A REPORT OF SMOKE AND FLAMES ABOARD AN OFFSHORE OIL PLATFORM IN THE GULF OF MEXICO * PLATFORM SOUTH PASS 93B, OIL AND NATURAL GAS PLATFORM FOR ENERGY 21 HAS BEEN EVACUATED AND SHUT IN * ONE OF THE 100 BARREL TANKS IS ON FIRE WITH APPROX 20 BARRELS OF PRODUCT IN IT * PRODUCT IS A MIXTURE OF TOLUENE, XYLENE, AND DIESEL * ONE FIRE FIGHTING VESSEL IS ON SCENE WITH MORE VESSELS EN ROUTE * A CG CASA HAS BEEN DIVERTED ALONG WITH SMALL BOAT FROM CG STATION VENICE * THERE IS A POSSIBILITY OF FIRE SPREADING, BUT FIRE HAS NOT SPREAD YET."

0286. (SW corner of the Taylor slick on Tuesday May 22, for reference)
N28 54.841 W88 59.215

0291. 1456 CDT. N28 54.841 W88 59.215
W-NW corner of the Taylor slick today (20120530).

 

0290. (Pre-set location of a Shell oil slick, as reported in NRC #1012988 on May 29.
N29 12.000 W88 59.000

"NRC Report ID: 1012988
Incident Time: 2012-05-29 17:30:00
Location: UNKNOWN SHEEN INCIDENT BLOCK 69 LAT:29-12-74N LONG:88-58-50W
Incident Type: UNKNOWN SHEEN
Material: UNKNOWN OIL
Medium Affected: WATER
Suspected Responsible Party: SHELL
SkyTruth Analysis
Lat/Long: 29.220556, -88.980556 (Explicit)
Reported Sheen Size: 300 feet by 2.5 miles (area 90.91 acres)
SkyTruth Minimum Estimate: 97.19 gallons
Report Description
A HELICOPTER OBSERVED A SHEEN. THE SHEEN IS IN THE VICINITY OF A SHELL PIPELINE."


0292.
1518 CDT. N29 14.662 W89 00.087
Approx 1 nm west of the east end of the above  reported Shell slick.
 

0293. 1521 CDT. N29 13.411 W89 01.964
Approx 1 nm east of the west of the above reported Shell slick.

0294. 1540 CDT. N29 33.325 W89 27.668
Two small oblong slicks.

0295. 1548 CDT. N29 43.928 W89 39.775
This point on our route put us about 42miles southwest of a moderate-sized marsh fire.