Source of 30-mile oil spill in Gulf puzzles officials


Emulsified oil, oil mousse and tar balls from an unknown source were washing up on beaches from Grand Isle to West Timbalier Island along the Gulf of Mexico, a stretch of about 30 miles, and it was still heading west Monday afternoon, a Louisiana official said. The state is testing the material to see if it matches oil from last April’s BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Oil spill response workers under the direction of the U.S. Coast Guard and state officials were scrambling to block more of the material from coming ashore. ES&H Corp. has been hired to oversee the cleanup.

“We are working with our state and local partners to mitigate any further environmental impact while continuing to facilitate the safe movement of marine traffic to the fullest extent possible,” Capt. Jonathan Burton, the federal on-scene coordinator for the response, said in a news release late Monday.

“To avoid delays in resource availability and delivery, we have taken a forward leaning approach and authorized ES&H to procure whatever additional boom and resources they need,” Burton said.

The news release said that when all areas where the material has washed ashore are combined, about a half-mile of shoreline was affected.

Workers have deployed about 10,000 feet of containment and sorbent boom to prevent damage to environmentally sensitive areas; two MARKO skimmers are being moved to the area and another two are available; and two barge boats and two drum skimmers are at the scene.

The state has requested more boom, sorbents, skimmers and other equipment from the Coast Guard, said Garret Graves, coastal adviser to Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“Currently, boom is deployed in the Elmers/Caminada area and we’re looking at one gap closure” in that area, Graves said. “We have multiple independent tests under way to determine the source.”

On Sunday, Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts reported that a Coast Guard official had said the oil might be from a project to plug and abandon a well just offshore of Grand Isle. But Coast Guard officials said they’re still waiting for tests of material collected in that area to determine where it came from.

A Coast Guard news release said a second, much larger area of sheen south of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico contained small amounts of oil constituents mixed with sediment that seemed to be coming from the Mississippi River. The Coast Guard Cutter Pompano was deployed and gathered samples, which contained only trace amounts of petroleum hydrocarbons, oil and grease.

The samples were tested against state Department of Enviromental Quality standards, which call for no more than 65 parts per million of hydrocarbons and just under 10,000 ppm of oil and grease. One sample contained 8 ppm of total petroleum hydrocarbons and 86 ppm of oil and grease. A second contained 5 ppm of total hydrocarbons and 15 ppm of oil and grease.

“At this point, the dark substance is believed to be caused by a tremendous amount of sediment being carried down the Mississippi River due to high water, possibly further agitated by dredging operations,” the Coast Guard release said.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, however, said none of the three dredges operating near the mouth of the Mississippi River has reported any oil in the material they’re removing from the river bottom to keep the channel deep enough for ocean-going ships.

The Mississippi River had risen to 12.5 feet in New Orleans on Monday, up from only 3 feet above sea level three weeks ago, an indicator that the river contains a heavy load of sediment from upstream.

Betty Doud, a Grand Isle resident who volunteers with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said she monitored the oil moving along Grand Isle on Sunday.

“I was out there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. yesterday and the stuff came in in waves onto the island and through Caminada Pass,” she said. “There were these orange, nasty waves and black oil mixed with it. The oil was in the rocks along the pass.”

Doud collected a sample of the material for Jefferson Parish President John Young, who was inspecting the area, and Young told her it would be tested at a laboratory in Lafayette. Doud has sent other samples to the Bucket Brigade, which will have them tested independently to determine if the oil matches that released last year from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The tests also will determine whether the oil contains cancer-causing oil constituents, or Corexit, the dispersant used last year to break up oil from the BP well.

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at or 504.826.3327.

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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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