Learning From Mexican Spill, Researchers Fight for Funds


Scientists studying one of the biggest oil spills 31 years ago watched with alarm as funds to research the environmental damage evaporated shortly after the well was plugged.

As BP PLC appears to have sealed its own troubled well, some of the same people who researched the effect of oil and chemical dispersants on wildlife after the Ixtoc I well exploded in 1979 off the Mexican Gulf Coast are mobilizing to make sure the situation is different this time.

On Sunday, BP said pressure testing on its well indicated an effective cement plug in the pipe. The company said it will still complete a relief well as a precautionary measure.

Scientists at research institutions along the U.S. Gulf Coast are lobbying Congress and other federal agencies for money as they rush to compile a list of must-do projects to determine the long-term impact of the spill from BP’s Macondo well.

In Mexico, a group of researchers have secured government funds to investigate their side of the Gulf for the next five years. “We’re getting involved right now, so that we don’t see a repeat of what happened in 1979,” said Luis Soto, an oceanographer who studied the Mexican spill and is now tracking Macondo’s oil in Mexican waters.

In June of that year, Ixtoc I, an exploratory well owned by Mexico’s national oil company, blew out, erupting in flames and causing the drilling platform above it to sink. Over the next nine months, it spewed out more than three million barrels of oil.

In the early days of that spill, U.S. and Mexican scientists armed with government funds fanned out to track its effects, but when the oil disappeared so did the much of money, they said.

Wes Tunnell, now the associate director at the Harte Research Institute, said he had been studying the oil’s effect on the Texas shore with a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but “once the word got back to Washington that a tropical storm had cleaned the beaches, the funding kind of dried up.”

Mr. Tunnell got a graduate student to do some follow-up work a few years later at no cost to the government. Mr. Soto, the Mexican oceanographer who is now at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said he experienced the same, although he doesn’t recall how much money he got back then. For this spill, the Mexican government granted his group a little less than $3 million over five years. “The money is never enough,” Mr. Soto said.

To be sure, scientists have a vested interest in seeking as much money as possible because of the job security and compensation that can accompany research grants. But many of them said more research on Ixtoc I years ago would be helpful now. A key question that scientists are still trying to answer: What happened to the oil that didn’t burn off, evaporate or get collected?

By the time the researchers gathered at a conference devoted to Ixtoc I in 1982, most were no longer working on the spill due to lack of money, participants said.

Ixtoc I owner Petróleos Mexicanos says it is difficult to assess whether it properly followed up back then because many of the people who were involved in the spill are no longer with the company. However, a spokesman said, some of the results from investigations done at that time were published and available for others to learn from them.

This time around, BP has pledged $500 million over the next 10 years for scientists to study the effects of the spill. The company has already granted $30 million of that and is working with government authorities on how to distribute the rest.

“Make no mistake, our focus on restoration along the Gulf Coast is a long-term focus,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman for the company.

Still, scientists worry whether that will be enough. Ideally, they say, conditions on the Gulf should be continually monitored for at least 10 years, and a single one-week expedition can cost more than $1 million. They are also afraid that BP’s funds will dissuade others from making additional grants.

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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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