Coastal officials hope for best, but worry where Bonnie might push oil from Gulf spill


In more than a week since a cap has effectively sealed BP’s mile-deep well in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore cleanup operations have undergone a dramatic shift, with fewer burns, less oil skimmed and a near-halt to the use of underwater dispersants.

The reason: With the gusher of oil finally checked, thick patches of crude are simply harder to find these days.

With the second tropical system in a month poised to churn up oil even more, the cleanup that resumes next week after Bonnie moves through is likely to look much different than the methods of the past three months.

“When this passes clear of the Gulf of Mexico, we’re going to see a significant reduction in observable oil,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator for the oil spill, said Friday.

Of course Bonnie — projected to make landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border late Saturday evening — brings several uncertainties, and the potential to draw oil farther inland. The experience with Hurricane Alex earlier this month shows that stronger winds and surges produced by tropical systems can bring tar balls into areas as far-flung as Galveston, Texas, and eastern Lake Pontchartrain.

Although Bonnie poses a direct threat to the Louisiana coast, unlike Alex, which made landfall in south Texas, Zukunft pointed out that the conditions — particularly the capped well — are completely different.

“Leading up to Bonnie, this is preceded by two weeks of phenomenal weather offshore, where we’ve had record amounts of skimming, in situ burning, and we’ve had no new oil introduced for an eight-day period,” he said. “The wind and sea state will break up a lot of this light sheen. What I expect we’ll see is much less oil in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Already in the past week, the amount of oil picked up by 72 offshore skimmers has dropped from 25,000 barrels of oil collected on a day before the cap was installed to less than 56 on Wednesday, Zukunft said. There have only been two burns this week that lasted less than 40 minutes, compared to 26 burns the week before lasting several hours.

“The good news is this oil sheen is breaking up pretty quick,” he said. “But the other piece will be monitoring the oil, where it might make impact.”

If the storm continues on a track that makes landfall in Louisiana, it will be accompanied by south and southeasterly winds that are likely to push more oil farther up into Breton Sound, and potentially into Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain.

If it moves farther east, toward Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, most of the wind circulation would be from the north, likely pushing oil offshore and away from the state’s interior marshes.

Kenneth Graham, the meteorologist-in-charge at the New Orleans office of the National Weather Service, said that Bonnie’s weakening trends on Friday and fast movement make it a much different storm than Hurricane Alex. Alex was larger in size, and remained in the Gulf for days, churning up water and storm surges that reached a wider geographic area.

“The interesting part about Bonnie is that it’s not going to hang around that long in the Gulf,” Graham said. “By Monday it’s in Arkansas. There’s not a lot of time to really stir things up a lot, and you can have high enough seas to eat up the oil pretty good.”

John Lopez, the coastal sustainability director with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, stopped short of saying Bonnie would be a net positive, but said it should accelerate the breakup of the oil that remains offshore.

“We know this oil is at least a week weathered, and it’s now going to be buried even longer,” Lopez said. “The storm has the potential to move the oil around, but a lot of the oil is highly dissipated. I don’t think it’s going to be a major factor.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal on Friday, though, cautioned that although stronger waves have the potential to break up oil, he is most concerned about areas to the east of the river such as Mississippi Sound.

“Our experience with Alex shows that these storms have the ability to push this oil in for a number of reasons,” Jindal said. “You’ve got less effective boom, you’ve got fewer skimmers out there working and you’ve got the winds and the wave action pushing that oil in.”

Once the storm has passed, Zukunft said he expects to begin deploying skimmers and cleanup resources as early as Monday morning, assuming the seas have calmed. By that point, he said much of the fight against oil may have moved inland — assuming the cap remains in place until the relief well is completed.

But he pointed out that offshore boats will remain on the job, if only to seek out the dwindling patches of oil on the water.

“It’s not until we have a well kill before we can consider pulling back skimmers and changing our resource strategy,” he said.

There has been skepticism from some local parish presidents who believe that the Coast Guard was too conservative earlier this week by ordering boom and oil-blocking barges removed in advance of the storm. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis were among the fiercest critics of the Coast Guard removal plans.

“Our boats are staying here, the equipment is staying here, and Sunday we’ll be back out on that water as soon as it’s safe, looking for that oil, because they don’t have a clue,” Nungesser said, referring to the Coast Guard. “We’ve got to catch it before it can go further inland.”

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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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