After examining satellite and aerial imagery, ship tracking data, and interviews with local officials and others involved in responding to the oil spill, cleanup teams are working to contain what experts have called a significant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The leak, one of several clouds discovered off the coast of Louisiana after Hurricane Ida, was identified in satellite imagery captured Thursday by space technology companies Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies.
A black surface and a rainbow-colored oil sheen that stretched for at least ten miles spread into coastal waters about two miles from Port Fourchon, an oil and gas hub. An aerial photo of the spill was taken Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The mighty hurricane, which swept over one of the country’s largest chemical, oil and gas centers when it landed on Sunday, has concerns about the vulnerability of the region’s fossil fuel infrastructure to worsening storms associated with global warming , increases emissions from oil and gas.
It was unclear how much oil had spilled into the Gulf, such a person with direct knowledge of the purge. The spill, possibly from an old, obsolete pipeline that was damaged by the storm, was first discovered on Monday during reconnaissance flights led by a number of Gulf Coast producers and reported to the Coast Guard, the person who was not authorized said to speak publicly about the cleanup.
Two more boats showed up on Saturday morning to join the cleanup. James Hanzalik, Associate General Manager, Clean Gulf Associates, a non-profit oil spill cooperative established by industry, confirmed on Friday afternoon that a leak was ongoing and that a cleanup was underway.
Lt. U.S. Coast Guard’s John Edwards said the oil spill involved crude oil from an old pipeline owned by Houston-based oil and gas exploration company Talos Energy. A cleaning ship hired by Talos was using skimmers to salvage 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 have not made it to the site yet, Lt. Edwards, but Talos had told the agency that only 42 gallons of material had so far been recovered from the water. The authority had initiated a preliminary investigation, he added.
Several experts who examined the overpass and satellite imagery said the leak appeared to be persistent and significant.
“It is a significant leak that requires further investigation,” said Oscar Garcia-Pineda, a scientist at Water Mapping, a consultancy based in Gulf Breeze, Florida that has led research into the use of satellite and aerial imagery on oil spills. “I see a hint of thick heavy oil, which is the main dark feature, surrounded by a rainbow glow,” he said. Wednesday’s flyover photo appeared to show the leak that began underwater.
The area is known to be dense with pipelines, and in the past, strong storms have caused mudslides that can damage pipes or even the foundations of platforms that hold equipment that pumps oil and gas from the seabed, he said .
Cathleen E. Jones, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Who participated in overflights to assess storm damage, said the images indicated that very thick oil was leaking and that further investigation was needed.
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“In a case like this where you clearly have thick oil, you can calculate the area but you don’t know how thick it is, ”she said. But because of the color, she said, “It’s a very, very thick slick.”
The likely origin of the Talos leak was first discovered by John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto, who examined the images of Ida’s damage.
“The fact that this leak was found is due to the fact that NOAA has made aerial photographs publicly available,” he said. “If NOAA hadn’t made this public, it would have been much more difficult to uncover an apparently evolving environmental problem.”
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that there appeared to be a long oil spill off the Louisiana coast, several miles east of the Talos Outlet. It was unclear whether this slick was related.
Flyover and satellite images showed several other slicks along the Louisiana coast, NOAA confirmed on Saturday. And the person who knew about the purge said it was possible that leaks from other sources were also contributing to the cloud.
The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore oil and gas platforms, said in a media update that workers from 133 production platforms and six drilling rigs were evacuated on Friday morning. More than 90 percent of oil and gas production in the Gulf are still shut down, the agency said.
The office update didn’t mention the ongoing cleanup. After the inspections, production from undamaged systems will be “immediately put back online”, it said. Calls to the office and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality were not answered.
A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, Janie Acevedo-Beauchamp, referred questions to the Coast Guard, which deals with spills in coastal waters. The EPA remained “committed to providing the resources we have available to help the storm-hit communities,” she said.
Naomi Yoder, a research fellow at Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans-based environmental group, said the leak was the latest indication that the hurricane-induced pollution was widespread. “The corporations that are poisoning our communities must be held accountable and reverse this disaster,” she said.
A report released 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 approximately 18,000 miles of pipeline on the ocean floor. These pipelines, about 97 percent of the decommissioned pipelines in the area, are often abandoned without cleaning or burying.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed an oil rig about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana. It triggered the longest oil spill in United States history to date.