A New Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico – and Insight into the Causes of the Old Spill


While the world’s attention has been fixed on the nuclear crisis in Japan, we’re fast coming upon the one-year anniversary of another major environmental disaster: the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Though opinions are still divided on just how much damage the spill has caused – and may continue to cause – the Gulf community is beginning to recover, and fishing boast have gotten back in the water.

Which means it must be time for a new spill for the star-crossed region. Yesterday, days after an oil slick was first seen near southern Louisiana’s Grand Isle, Houston-based Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners accepted responsibility for what seems like a minor oil spill. (The story was first broken by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.) State agents traced back the oil to an Anglo-Suisse well about 30 miles southeast of Grand Isle that had been plugged for permanent abandonment. It’s not clear how much oil leaked from the well, but it’s surely more than the 5 gallons Anglo-Suisse originally told the Coast Guard had leaked. That was on March 18, but a few days later officials found company employees still trying to shut the well remotely. Though the company reported that the well has been successfully shut on Tuesday night, there is still evidence of oil along the coast.

As Yahoo’s Brett Michael Dykes points out, there’s little tough oversight for oil pollution, most of which depends on self-reporting:

The confusion surrounding this latest Gulf spill points up a fatal flaw of America’s oil pollution reporting system, which operates via a virtual honor code. Under present reporting protocols, polluters are tasked with the responsibility of turning themselves in when they’re responsible for an accident – knowing all the while that a federal inspector will probably never be dispatched to investigate.

Meanwhile, investigators are still pouring over the causes of the original BP oil spill. One of the biggest mysteries was the failure of the well’s blowout preventer, which should have, well, prevented the blowout. Obviously that didn’t happen, and the supposedly fail-safe device failed. What happened? A report released today by the Interior Department – based on a physical exam of the salvaged device – suggested that the raw power of the rising oil and gas from the blown well shoved a bent piece of piping into the blowout preventer, keeping the shearing blades and valves from closing off the well when crew on the Deepwater Horizon tried to activate it.

That’s just one failure in the long chain of mistakes that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Have changes been put into place to prevent another Deepwater Horizon? Critics are doubtful – but the industry and its allies in government are eager to move past the spill, and get on with drilling the Gulf. And the Obama Administration – handing out deepwater permits again – seems inclined to agree. April 20, 2010 seems a lot further away than just a year.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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