Is BP’s Macondo Well Site Still Leaking? Fresh Oil on the Gulf Raises Concerns and Haunting Memories


Fresh oil is surfacing all over the northern quadrant of the Gulf of Mexico. Reports of slicks that meander for miles and huge expanses of oil sheen that look like phantom islands are becoming common, again. Fresh oil, only slightly weathered, is washing ashore in areas hit hardest by last year’s massive spill, like Breton Island, Ship Island, the Chandeleurs and northern Barataria Bay. BP has reactivated its Vessels of Opportunity (VoO) program to handle cleanup. It’s a sickeningly familiar scene that has fishermen, researchers and public officials searching for answers, as haunting memories of last year’s calamity come roaring back.

The fifty-thousand-dollar question, of course, is where is all the new oil coming from?

One theory: The Macondo Well site, located just 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, is still leaking untold amounts of oil into the Gulf. Some argue that the casing on the capped well itself is leaking. Others believe oil is seeping through cracks and fissures in the seafloor caused by months of high-impact work on the site, including a range of recovery activities (some disclosed, some not) as well as the abortive “top kill” effort.

In January 2011, a prominent “geohazards specialist” wrote an urgent letter to two members of Congress – U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and John Shimkus, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy – suggesting that the Macondo site is leaking oil like a sieve. Here’s an excerpt from that letter (see it in its entirety below):

There is no question that the oil seepages, gas columns, fissures and blowout craters in the seafloor around the Macondo wellhead… have been the direct result of indiscriminate drilling, grouting, injection of dispersant and other undisclosed recover activities. As the rogue well had not been successfully cemented and plugged at the base of the well by the relief wells, unknown quantities of hydrocarbons are still leaking out from the reservoir at high pressure and are seeping through multiple fault lines to the seabed. It is not possible to cap this oil leakage.

BK Lim, the letter’s author, has more than 30 years of experience working inside the oil and gas industry for companies like Shell, Petronas and Pearl Oil.

More from Mr. Lim’s letter:

The continuing hydrocarbon seepage would have long term, irreversible and potentially dire consequences in the GOM (Gulf of Mexico)…

The letter is dated Jan. 14, 2011 – and we’ve been seeing more and more evidence that the scenario Mr. Lim describes is indeed taking place deep below the Gulf’s surface.

For example, on March 28, 2011, Paul Orr and his team from the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper – an organization I’ve worked with frequently over the course of the last year – conducted a 50-mile boat patrol and sampling tour of Breton Sound, which lies just off the southeast coast of Louisiana. The excursion was prompted by multiple, increasingly frantic, reports of oil in the area by fishermen and others, including On Wings of Care pilot Bonny Schumaker, who has dozens of Gulf flyovers under her belt.

Mr. Orr took a sample from the southern end of Breton Island National Park – and sure enough, lab-certified tests results established a fingerprint match to BP’s Macondo Well (see link to my previous post and test results below).

The most alarming part of the finding was not simply that the Breton Island sample had BP’s fingerprint on it, but that the test results were nearly identical to those from the fresh oil seen in the early days of the BP spill – instead of the heavily weathered and degraded oil we’ve come to expect in recent weeks and months.

Those test results seem to disprove the other theory surrounding this spate of recent “fresh oil” reports. That is: All the oil BP strategically sunk to the seafloor with nearly 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant is beginning to break free and rise to the surface en masse, and in turn, blacken the coastline with fresh oil. According to civil engineer and petroleum expert, Marco Kaltofen, oil that has been lying on the seafloor for several months would be much significantly more weathered than the fresh oil we’re seeing more and more of.

As you’ll notice from the histograms, the Breton Island sample mirrors the submerged oil sampled from Pensacola Bay on Nov. 5, 2010 (BretonSamplevsPensacola11.5.10) and a sample taken from Panama City Beach on July 14, 2010 (BretonsamplevsPCB7.14.2010). You don’t have to be a marine biologist to see that this is the same oil with nearly identical weathering.

So we had fresh oil with BP’s signature on it coming ashore in March – more than eight months after the Macondo Well was capped. And since then, members of my team and other researchers have reported fresh oil, of the “only slightly weathered” variety from Grand Isle to Pensacola. One charter boat fishing captain, who frequents the waters around Louisiana’s barrier islands, is describing the current, hauntingly familiar situation on the Gulf as the “second wave” of the BP disaster.

Here are photos from a June 10 sampling tour in northern Barataria Bay, which is just southeast of Louisiana (special thanks to Rob Coulon for sharing his photos, see link below).

According to Bonny Schumaker, who has been tracking oil in the Gulf since the outset of the spill, the most “gruesome” evidence of fresh oil she’s seen to date has been in the marshes of northern Barataria Bay. From Schumaker:

The stuff that comes up after every single storm smells horrible and has the look and consistency of axle grease.

In addition to Barataria Bay, Schumaker has taken samples from the east shore of Chandeleurs (29 57.248 N; 88 40.246 W) and Ship Island (30 12.54 N; 88 58.92 W), where she said conditions looked highly “suspicious.”

Schumaker’s samples have been sent to a certified lab for testing. We will post those results, along with analysis, as soon as they’re available. If those samples are shown to carry the BP signature, it will provide overwhelming evidence that there’s more than an old pipeline leak still happening out there, says Schumaker.

So while we watch in horror as the “second wave” of the BP disaster rolls in – complete with fresh oil and newly hired Vessels of Opportunity cleanup workers – BP continues to make the absurd argument that the Gulf has made a full recovery. While geohazard specialist BK Lim predicts “long term, irreversible and potentially dire consequences” tied to the ongoing seepage around the Macondo wellhead, BP attempts to shutdown further “future loss” payments to spill victims, including commercial fishermen. It’s clear that our friends at BP are in a 5,000-foot-deep state of denial.

Please stay tuned as we will continue to track and sample “fresh oil” as it’s reported.

See my May 10 post on fresh BP oil coming ashore on Breton Island:

Review the letter from veteran “geoharzards specialist” BK Lim to members of Congress telling of ongoing seepage from the Macondo site: Check out the important work Bonny Schumaker’s nonprofit On Wings of Care is doing in the Gulf:

Check out more of Rob Coulon’s photos of Barataria Bay sampling:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved


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