Oil spill : Fallibility of human technology strikes again!

6 May 2010

Gulf of Mexico oil spill threatens human and marine life.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, burst into flames, then toppled into the sea roughly 50 miles from the coastline of Louisiana. Eleven workers were killed and another 17 injured of the 126 people on the rig. Over the next fortnight, events turned from human tragedy to economic threat and environmental disaster. Unlike the devastation of hurricane Katrina, which tore through the Gulf coast states in 2005, this catastrophe is playing out in slow motion, as crude oil spews from three leaks in the riser (the piping that connects the well head to the surface) at the rate of more than 200,000 gallons a day and spreads toward the coast. The depth of the leak—5,000+ feet—and stormy weather have conspired to defeat technology and ingenuity. Choppy water has scattered dispersants, confounded efforts to skim off or burn off pooling oil and waves have pushed the slick over the top of the hundreds of thousands of feet of boom laid offshore.

British Petroleum, which was leasing the rig, has called on the newest technology, to little avail. Robots were sent down immediately and are still working to try to seal off the riser where emergency seals failed to shut off the flow. A Subsea Oil Recovery System, a large structure that can be placed over the largest leak source to collect the oil and pump it up to a tanker for storage and shipping, will be moved in as weather permits, unprecedented at such a great depth. Dispersants are being injected at the leak site itself, a technique not tried before. Fisheries have been closed and fishing vessels hired to help with the cleanup. Onshore, wildlife rescue organizations have sent staff to set up treatment centers. Boom is ready to be deployed along the shoreline of four states to protect sensitive ecosystems—including more than half the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states. The rapidity and variety of responses reflect lessons learned from the Santa Barbara, Ixtoc II and Exxon Valdez disasters but they also underline Jacques Cousteau’s warning that, “all human undertakings are fallible.”