2015 April 26
Coastal waters of Louisiana
Gulf of Mexico

by Bonny L. Schumaker, Ph.D.1

 

Why have we tolerated a continuous major oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico for over a decade?
-- The Findings of Taylor Energy and Failures of the U.S. Coast Guard


CONTENTS

Introduction and Summary
The mistakes, and what is at stake
Hurricane Ivan and the Central Planning Area
Decades of carelessness
Amount of Material:  Careless reporting or deliberate deception?
What to do



INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY

Ten miles offshore from the tip of Louisiana, in water less than 500 feet deep, lies a grim reminder that while nature gives to man freely, carelessness injures both man and nature.  Almost every day for the past decade, enough crude oil has leaked from the damaged seafloor here to render at least five hundred million gallons of sea water toxic to life. That’s enough poisoned water to fill 150 football fields to one-foot depth, every day.  These deadly waters cannot be  contained and do not remain stationary.  They follow currents and tidelines, like deadly predators silently stalking the marine life that they poison and will ultimately kill. 

Crude oil is so potent that even a minute concentration of one part per million can severely sicken or kill life. Its most toxic components, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), can persist in seawater for many years. They destroy red blood cells, alter liver metabolism, damage gland tissue, and interrupt the cellular pathways that control the beating of hearts. Ingestion causes cancer, DNA damage, and multi-generational birth defects. On contact, crude oil burns skin and dissolves easily into tissue. It suffocates fish by causing a mucus film to form over their bodies and gills, and it smothers benthic invertebrates such as oysters. 

In one pernicious way or another, crude oil causes premature and painful death to all life it touches.  Not just when it first appears, and not even just linearly with exposure time, but exponentially.  After long enough continued exposure, there are no longer enough healthy individuals to regenerate, and the local species of marine life disappear.

The photos below were taken on the 18th of June, 2014, almost a year ago. Note the sampling boat with scientists aboard, in the middle of the photo. They are surrounded by what OWOC estimated to be about 850 acres of sheen with 30% coverage, exhibiting most of the “colors” of sheen that we have seen in the Gulf of Mexico: silvery, rainbow, metallic, transitional dark, as well as streamers of emulsion.  OWOC estimated the amount of oil to be at least 200 gallons.  The same day, Taylor reported the amount of material associated with this sheen to be 0.34 gallons — about five cups. The scientists in the boat felt sick from the fumes; but afterward, we all felt sick to think that the Coast Guard would believe that all of that oil amounted to one-third of a gallon. (Photos courtesy of OnWingsOfCare.org and Oscar Pineda-Garcia.)



2015 March 19
10 miles from coastal Louisiana
Gulf of Mexico

Today marked our 60th flyover since July of 2011 of this tragic ongoing pollution site that has been pouring oil and gas into the shallow coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico barely 10 miles from Louisiana’s marshes and wetlands.  The site is commonly referred to as the “Taylor Energy” slick, for the company whose oil production platform was toppled in a mudslide caused by Hurricane Ivan in September of 2004.  That mudslide buried more than 25 associated pipelines under at least 100 feet of mud, and the seafloor has been weeping oil and gas ever since.  For more than ten years running, here in the Mississippi Canyon Lease Block 20 (“MC20”), oil and gas have been bubbling up to the surface from 500 ft below and spreading out in sickening tentacles as long as 15 miles, in directions that change depending on sea currents.

We’ll be publishing another article here very soon that describes the history of this MC20 pollution site, including actions taken to date by the US Coast Guard (USCG), Taylor Energy, and others to try to contain and arrest the pollution, and the controversial assessments to date of just how much oil and gas has been and still is pouring into these coastal waters. (Stay tuned for it on our “News!” section, or watch the On Wings Of Care Facebook page.)

Here we provide photos, video, flight tracks and flight log for today’s overflight of MC20.  This flight was scheduled deliberately to coincide with overpasses by the radar imaging satellite RadarSat2 as well as NOAA and NASA visible satellites  EO-1 and ASTER.  On board with us was colleague Dr. Oscar Garcia from Florida State University, who is a scientific expert in the use of remote sensing to characterize marine oil slicks and also a seasoned authority on recent pollution at this site.  We have received many requests from news agencies for information and aerial documentation on this site, so we are pleased to be able to refer them to Dr. Garcia for recent, thorough, and factual information.

Fog and traffic on the roads caused a delay to our planned early takeoff from Lakefront Airport, but the delay proved serendipitous, because the wetlands and waters all the way out to the MC20 location were covered by a dense layer of ground fog.  As we approached within a few miles of the pollution site, I had to announce the bad news that we might only be able to see the southern portion of the slick, for the “SOSO” — the Surface Oil Slick Origin, or place place where the plumes of oil and oil-coated gas bubbles first appear on the water’s surface — was still completely obscured by fog.  Fortunately, while we flew along the several southern lines of oil, the fog dissipated, and flying back northward, we had good views of the rainbow sheen and the oil-coated gas bubbles at the SOSO.  We also saw lines and patches of dark sheen, which are thicker layers of crude oil than the rainbow sheen. Some of this darker oil looked fairly fresh, and some of it looked weathered as it collected along convergence lines in the water. 

In these photos and video, you’ll also see what looks like foam, which is the typical appearance of decaying organic matter, usually dead grass from the coast or sargassum weed from farther offshore.  Unusually prevalent today were many parallel lines of turbidity, which extended from very near shore out to the Taylor site and beyond.

Our flight log is appended below, and our GPS flight tracks can be downloaded from this website.  As always, while all material on this website is copyrighted, the public is welcome to reference our photos and videos and to contact us for permission to use them elsewhere.  A key part of OWOC’s mission to  help protect wildlife and habitat is to provide facts and other information to the public, so we are happy to share our work for purposes that can benefit the Gulf of Mexico and her inhabitants, or wildlife and habitat elsewhere.

Here are a few favorite photos from this flight, followed by a video of the MC20 sheen.  More photos are appended below the video, followed by today’s Flight Log. The photos show first the sheen at MC20; then the turbidity, foam, and convergence line phenomena in that vicinity; and finally the coastal wetlands areas.

We are also including annotated maps of three flyovers of this site since last September, which show how much the shape, direction, and size of this slick changes with changing wind and sea conditions.  However, the “SOSO” point moves very little.  This brings home the importance of considering sea conditions when making aerial observations of any surface oil sheen, for they affect not only the size and shape and direction of the slick, but also the visibility of the oil from the air.  Regrettably, a majority of the NRC reports filed for this pollution site by Taylor Energy’s contractor fail to note the sea state in their reports, adding to the questionability of the inferences made about volume of polluting material contained in the surface sheen.














It is interesting to see how the sheen moves with changing weather and sea conditions. For example, compare the maps below showing our flyovers of the MC20 sheen on 20140908, 20141009, and today, 20150319.  In each of these three flyovers spanning about six months, the sheen about 14 miles in substantive length, rainbow sheen was always present, and the “SOSO” point barely moved.  The amounts of emulsified and weathered oil varied considerably, as did the amount of organic matter present and the locations of convergence lines.  The slick directions different profoundly, being southwesterly in September 2014, westerly in October 2014, and southeasterly and easterly in March 2015. In fact, the sheen direction and size undoubtedly changed far more frequently and dramatically than is reflected by just these three published flyovers. 

It seems to us safe to assume that on days when seas are rough or air visibility is poor (and no substantial storm is present to disturb the seafloor), even though it becomes  for an aerial observer to see the sheen clearly or characterize its thickness based on color, the leakage of oil and gas from the seafloor changes little in its rate or quantity.








Here are more photos:


















And here is today’s Flight Log:
******************************
On Wings Of Care Flight Log for 20150319 - Thursday ?Ongoing monitoring of chronic Taylor Energy oil slick off the coast of Louisiana


Maps, photos, and videos are in today’s article at OnWingsOfCare.org.  ?Waypoint numbers below refer to the GPS tracks shown in today’s article.
Times are given in CDT.  ?Lat/lons are typically given in degrees and decimal minutes (except in the table below, where they are in decimal degrees)?Pilot, Crew, & Aircraft:  Bonny L. Schumaker; Oscar Garcia (FSU, ECOGIG), and two guest crew members;  N4784E (“Bessie”)
Seas and weather:  Seas 0—1 ft, winds 5 kts from the northwest?Sky & Visibility: Ground fog at start, then clearing offshore, 5-mile vis onshore.
Flight time:  2.5 hours 
Flight route: KNEW southeastward over Delacroix, then direct to the Taylor sheen. ?Actual Flight:  204 nm within an area of 254 sq nm?Maps of our route showing the following waypoints identified during our flight, plus some relevant waypoints from previous flights, are in today’s article.

DVFR FLT PLAN: (Xpdr____):
N4784E, C172/U, 115 kts. KNEW ATD 1329Z, <1,500’, KNEW ATA 1606Z: ATE: 2.6 hrs.  Oil sheen survey.   Dest: ~100 nm southeast (135° Mag) from KNEW.  ADIZ-Back: ~N28 44.8 W089 44.5

Waypoints and sightings:

WPT

LAT

LON

TIME

DESCRIPTION

1247

28.90

-88.92

2015-03-1 9T14:33:5 1Z

Emulsion-MarineSnow-Line (approx 8.2 nm from land, about 87 nm on a 140° magnetic course from KNEW)

1249

28.88

-88.89

2015-03-1 9T15:01:5 0Z

Rainbow - Heavy

1250

28.93

-88.96

2015-03-1 9T15:07:2 8Z

SOSO — Surface Oil Slick Origin - Taylor (Sharp line of rainbow, gas bubbles). Note: 7.5 nm from nearest land!

1251

29.63

-89.63

2015-03-1 9T15:43:3 0Z

Three roseate spoonbills! (Flying southward)