Oil spill: Harte Institute seeks lessons from the past

22 July 2010

BP has completed installation of a capping stack on the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico and oil has stopped gushing for the first time since April 20. This latest and tentatively successful attempt closed the flow over more than week of cautious testing and is being closely monitored for signs that the well’s integrity could be compromised. Progress inches toward a mid-August completion of relief wells that are expected to be a permanent solution.

As the Deepwater Horizon is being staunched, scientists at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) in Texas are looking at the long-term fate of the ecosystems and marine life assailed by toxic oil and dispersants. On July 5, Dr. Wes Tunnell led a team to the Bay of Campeche where on June 3, 1979, the Ixtoc I exploratory well blew out, spewing an estimated 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf before it was finally capped more than nine months later. Over the past three decades, Dr. Tunnell has made numerous trips to the site of the Ixtoc I spill to study a total of 12 shoreline habitats around the southern Gulf. During July and August 1980, he traveled the southern Gulf shorelines looking specifically for oil from Ixtoc I on sandy beaches, rocky seashores, and coral reefs. Until the mid-1990s he made annual trips to study sites on the coral reefs of Veracruz and in 2002, during a Sustainable Seas Expedition to the Veracruz reefs, he was able to relocate the Ixtoc I tar mats tracked through time.

Dr. Tunnell’s blog at http://ixtoc1expedition.blogspot.com/ reports his conversations with local fishermen and observations from sites along the Yucatán peninsula. Photos show mats of the 30-year-old oil still clogging mangroves. Dr. Tunnell write that watermen began catching finfish again a few years after the spill but that the region’s oyster fishery has never recovered—bad omens for the marshlands and oyster fisheries of Louisiana.
HRI has assembled a valuable reference list of papers on the Ixtoc I as part of its resource center for information about the Deepwater Horizon and general oil spill information at http://www.harteresearchinstitute.org/