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2013 February 17, Sunday
Mississippi River - Barataria Bay - MC252 - Main Pass

UPDATE:  Video of the Taylor Energy site has been uploaded; see below. Also, another flight on March 08 shows that the clearer views and good news were short-lived!

We took advantage of gorgeous (but windy) weather and reasonably calm seas to check out some areas in the Gulf today. We started along the Mississippi River where there are several targets of local environmental concern: two large (and growing larger) coal terminals and a new natural pass that is feeding the wetlands but is being blocked by a private road being built. We then diverted west to look at Bay Jimmy and Barataria Bay, where oyster and shrimp fishermen have been extremely hard hit.  From there we flew southeastward over the delta, past the Taylor Energy chronic pollution site and out to the MC252 area (gravesite of BP's Deepwater Horizon). The good news is that the large surface sheen we've been seeing in the MC252 area seems to have gone! On our way home, we flew over the Apache Corporation Ensco 87 rig in Main Pass block 295, which was evacuated a couple of days ago because of an upwelling of natural gas.  Between there and New Orleans, we were treated to gorgeous views of Breton Island and the wetlands.  We also saw the first pod of dolphins we've seen between Louisiana and the Macondo in almost a year! A small pod of seven, but heartening to see.

Here are some "teaser" photos from today.  Many more, with supporting descriptions, are included below. As always, our GPS flight tracks can be downloaded here, and a transcription of our Flight Log is appended at the bottom of this article. 

Here are maps of today's flight route:


We began by flying down the Mississippi River. On our way there we passed over the Chalmette refinery, which is jointly owned by Exxon Mobil and Venezuelan State Oil and operated by Exxon Mobil. From there we headed directly south over wetlands and were treated to the sight of several large groups of white pelicans. 

Our first real target along the Mississippi River was two large coal (and pet coke) terminals -- Kinder Morgan International Marine and United Bulk Coal. They are located on the west and east side of the river, respectively, in Plaquemines Parish. It has been proposed to expand both of these terminals by nearly 400%. It is of considerable interest and importance to understand their actual and potential impact on the sensitive surrounding wetlands.


A little farther down the river we again checked out “Mardi Gras Pass” -- a new pass that the mighty Mississippi River is creating from its east bank. This is downriver of where the levee ends, in Bohemia.  This new river pass is clearly sustaining the wetlands beyond it, and it is also happy home to many otters.  But all of this is threatened by ongoing construction of an oil company road which is slowly filling this pass.


From there, we flew westward toward Barataria Bay, our target of interest being Bay Jimmy. You may recall back in late July of 2010 that a tugboat accidentally hit an abandoned oil well and sent oil spewing into Barataria Bay for well over five days and nights.  It was a horrifying show from the air back then, that continuous fountain of oil spurting into the air and the surface of Barataria Bay turning first gray and then rainbow. We saw no visible surface oil sheen in Bay Jimmy today, but there were several places where the marsh grass looked dead and dark, particularly along the shorelines.  All through the eastern section of Barataria Bay southward, the marsh grass and the shorelines of the small islands looked dark and not very healthy. Back in the spring of 2010, these small islands were densely populated, verdant-looking rookeries. Now they are much smaller in size, and their beaches look dark and dirty.




As we made our way to the southeast corner of Barataria Bay and farther, we saw many oyster boats and oyster farms (I presume that's what is marked by all of these wands in the water?). They aren't alone, as there are gas platforms there as well! It is a busy place down there, for sure.


Not 12 miles off shore we came to that large chronic oil slick off the southern tip of Louisiana known by the owner of the platform that was destroyed there by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Taylor Energy. We've documented this pollution site many times. But today, blue water had pushed closer to shore, and the area here that previously has been covered with expansive surface oil sheen had moved northeastward. We did not trace the slick today, but we flew over a few of the rainbow surface streamers just to show them to our passenger.  The recent weeks of being pummeled by storms and heavy winds most likely contributed to the displacement of the visible sheen today.  These photos, allthough taken from a distance, are sufficient to show that oil still pervades the area.  The photos are preceded by a video taken today:

 

Next we headed out to the MC252 area. Here we have been documenting a dramatic slick since last August, most recently three weeks ago (January 27). But today there was no sign of that large sheen; the water looked a beautiful blue, almost uniformly for miles around. The ENSCO 8502 drilling rig is still there, and there was a supply boat there as well. If the sheen was residual oil from the Deepwater Horizon wreckage, maybe we’ve finally seen the last of it?  Or could the sheen out here since the ENSCO 8502 arrived been caused by the rig's activities, which have been curtailed in the recent inclement?  Perhaps only time will tell.  In the distance about 12 nm to the south, the BP platform MC474A was flaring strongly, leaving a plume of smoke climbing high into the air. Just to the north of that is the ENSCO DS-3, a large mobile drillship.

One happy event occurred between Taylor Energy and the MC252 area: Near a line of patchy strings of sargassum, we saw a small pod of about seven dolphins! This sighting represents the first significant evidence of marine life we’ve seen in this area since early last summer. It was tough to get good photos of them, as the seas were rough and the air was rougher, and we didn't have good zoom lenses with us; but you'll know they're dolphins! There were also several seabirds in the area, another rare sight in the past year. Perhaps the recent weather and strong southerly winds are good not just for dissipating oil slicks but also for reviving the local fauna?

As we headed back northward from MC252, we again saw what we’ve long presumed to be natural seeps -- small crescent-shaped lines of light surface sheen, in the same places we’ve noted them before.

We returned to the mainland via Breton Sound and stopped at Main Pass Block 295, site of the Apache-operated ENSCO 87 platform sitting in about 200 feet of water, from which 15 workers were evacuated recently for an uncontrolled upwelling of natural gas from the 8300-foot well to only about 1000 feet below the seafloor.  We circled the area looking for evidence of gas bubbles in the water, but we did not see anything definitive.  Numerous work and supply vessels were in the vicinity.

Emerging from the “city of platforms” in the near-shore waters, we saw the beautiful low-profile sandy islands of the Chandeleurs curving northeastward.  We flew over their southwestern tip and then took a quick flight around Breton Island. Pelicans and many other seabirds huddled all over the lee-side beaches, some sitting and others standing up facing into the strong wind like soldiers. When we looked northward, we saw gorgeous wetlands stretching almost as far as our eyes could see, against the faint shape of the New Orleans skyline in the distance. When we looked southward out into the Gulf, we saw hundreds of oil and gas platforms scattered from west to east. The contrast was striking. 

There was one unusual thing about the waters of Breton Sound out to about 20 miles, including around Taylor and southeast of there a ways.  We saw lots of isolated thin lines of foamy bubbles. They resembled the ones we commonly see behind the pogey boat "massacres" (our term for them when we see them), except that there weren't nearly so many concentrated in any one place. And we didn't see any pogey or shrimp boats out there, perhaps because seas have been so rough. We don't know if these lines of foam are organic matter, if they are caused by the recent winds and rain, or what else.  


Last but not least:  
Thanks to Grand Isle resident and Gulf seafood processing giant Dean Blanchard for helping us with fuel costs, and to Brayton Matthews of Flightline First for providing still photos and video.  We were pleased to have Nailah Jefferson with us today. She is using several of On Wings Of Care's videos since 2010 (including some she took with her own equipment today) for her upcoming production of the documentary Vanishing Pearls  about the struggles of Louisiana fishermen since the BP oil disaster of 2010. Check out their trailer! She also contributes to a citizens’ information website called True Advocacy Group which provides accurate representation of the plight of local fishermen in its attempt to accelerate recovery in the Gulf and to promote enactment of new policies and provisions to prevent future similar disasters.

 

*****  On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20130217 - Sunday   ****** 
Overflight of Gulf of Mexico:  
Barataria Bay, Apache, Taylor Energy & MC252 areas

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.
Personnel: Dr. Bonny Schumaker with Brayton Matthews and Nailah Jefferson
Seas and weather:  Seas 2-4 ft, winds ~15 kts from the east-southeast.
Sky & Visibility: Clear skies,  50-mile visibility
Flight time:  3.0 hours
Flight route: KNEW - MS River - Barataria Bay -  Taylor Energy - MC252 - MainPass295 (Apache - Ensco 87) - Breton Sound - KNEW.

 

Short summary:

Gulf flyover by On Wings Of Care to follow up on observations of two areas of chronic anthropogenic oil slicks since our last flights, January 04, 07, 20, and 27 -- the Taylor Energy slick just off the southern coast of Louisiana, and the slick near MC252.  We also checked out some areas of interest along the Mississippi River, in Barataria Bay (Bay Jimmy), and the Ensco 87 rig about 50 miles east of Venice, LA, which was recently evacuated because of an uncontrolled gas flow.

20130120 -  Waypoints of Interest

KNEW - Lakefront Airport
Proceeded south-southeastward from KNEW, along the Mississippi River

0482:  N29 55.876 W89 58.618  1227 CST.
Large refinery south of Chalmette on the east bank of the MS River (last owned by Mobil, not sure if they still own it).

Several groups of white pelicans in the wetlands between Chalmette and the coal terminals!

KDRM: Kinder Morgan International Marine Terminal:  N29 37.436 W89 55.104  1239 CST.

UBCT: United Bulk Coal Terminal: N29 37.100 W89 53.464  1240 CST.

 

4BAY:  Big Four Bayou:  N29 35.700 W89 45.000  1245 CST.

 

MGRAS:  Mardi Gras Pass:  N29 31.771 W89 43.622  1245 CST.

BJIM:  Bay Jimmy & northeastern Barataria Bay:  N29 27.000 W89 53.000  1253 CST.

 

0483:  N29 25.922 W89 55.064  1254 CST.
Areas of darkened and deal-looking marsh along the shorelines of some islands.

0484:  N29 23.713 W89 47.005  1259 CST.
Eastern Barataria Bay. Islands that were populated rookeries back in 2010 are almost devoid of birds now.  Lots of small gas platforms and oyster boats in the vicinity. Are these hundreds of small poles marking oyster beds?

Taylor Energy:  N28 56.27 W89 01.8  1327 CST.
The slick we’ve seen for so long here had moved northeastward from this nominal position. It was also widely dispersed (no pun intended) compared to the heavy sheen we’ve seen here in the past. We did not trace the slick, just flew over a few “streamers” to show our passenger what light sheen looks like in green water.

 

ADIZ crossing:  ~N28°55’, W088°52’ (KNEW  ~90 nm, ~135°).

 

0485:  N28 51.047 W88 45.503  1337 CST.
Pod of 7 dolphins! First we’ve seen in since a few individuals seen in this area last summer. They were in the vicinity of a long line of small patches and strings of sargassum.

ENSCO 8502 (MC252-253):  N28 44.6 W88 21.3   1351 CST.
The Ensco rig is still here, but shows little activity. The expansive surface sheen that we’ve seen here since last fall was not visible today!  About 12 nm to the south, the BP platform MC474A was flaring and left quite a trail of smoke in the sky.

 

ENSCO 87 rig in MainPass 295:   N29 15  W88 45   1420 CST.
We looked for signs of gas bubbles in the water surrounding this, but did not see any.  There were several supply boats and work vessels in the vicinity. This rig was evacuated a few days ago, and reports are that there has been an underground blowout. Thus far, it apparently only involves natural gas, and it appears they are trying to “kill” it from the platform.  In other instances of this happening, the upward-shooting gas also involves oil, both escaping into surrounding bedrock and ultimately reaching the water surface.  (This is what happened with Chevron’s deepwater well off the coast of Brazil in 2011; see this link from Skytruth.org.))

 

Breton Island:  N29 30.3 W89 10.7  1440 CST.
Beautiful as ever, though diminishing in size every year. Birds of all sorts covered the inland beach areas, facing into the strong southerly wind.