The fire and subsequent explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform on April 20 this year has set in motion the worst oil pollution incident in the Americas since the Exxon Valdez disaster on March 24 1989. The uncapped oil well is releasing an official estimate of 5000 barrels (21000 gallons) per day, although many are saying that this may actually be closer to 60,000 barrels (252,0000 gallons). By comparison, the Valdez incident released an estimated total of 250,000 barrels.
The Valdez disaster is useful as a comparison as to what the effects of this spill may be. The oil was released into Prince William Sound, a remote area, with lots of rocky coves. The remoteness of the site delayed an effective response to the spill, but it’s rocky shores actually helped the efficiency of the clean up operation. The immediate effects of the spill was the death of between 100,000 to 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, as well as the destruction of billions of salmon and herring eggs. The current thinking is that it will take at least another 10 years from now before the areas habitats recover.
The Deepwater Horizons environmental impact is of course, yet to be determined. What is definite is that when the oil finds it’s way ashore, the clean up is going to be a much more difficult job. An analyst from the BBC described the shoreline upon which the oil will land as being a “sponge” which will soak up the oil, as opposed to the relatively impervious rocky shores of Prince William Sound. The Louisiana/Florida Gulf coastline is an incredibly intricate and varied ecosystem, with a complex geography of marshes and wetlands-getting the oil out of these may be simply impossible.
The other concern is that unlike the Valdez disaster, which was self-limiting, this oil is still flowing. In the past 13 days, the slick has trebled in size. The containment device deployed by engineers seems to have failed, and even they admit that there will be some continued leakage with it functional and in place. The only precedent that is available was the fire and explosion on the deep Ixtoc I exploratory oil well situated about 100 km north west from Ciudad del Carmen in Campeche, Gulf of Mexico. The incident occurred on June 3 1979, and oil continued to escape from the well until it was capped on March 23 1980. It released 3,000,000 barrels (126,000 000 gallons) of oil over those 9 or so months. It would seem that we have not learned from our mistakes.
Practically, our thoughts go out to all those on the front line in this catastrophe. This disaster affects many Wetpixel members. As photographers we have the power to document, and with forums like this to display, images that publicize the plight of the affected areas. These can be a powerful tool in trying to avoid another similar event. One other difference between the Exxon Valdez disaster and this one is the existence of forums like Wetpixel. For those of you on the Gulf coasts, please share your images.