[SkyTruth] Oil Spill Causes Shipping Backup in Gulf of Mexico

March 25, 2014; 12:20 PM – The 168,000-gallon fuel oil spill that happened Saturday near Galveston, Texas caused the Coast Guard to temporarily close the Houston Ship Channel.  That’s a very busy, narrow waterway connecting the Port of Houston with the Gulf of Mexico and overseas ports.  In addition to the environmental consequences of this heavy oil spill, including the threat to shorebirds at the peak of their spring migration, this closure has caused a big-time backup of shipping traffic.

Here at SkyTruth we track vessels with satellite imagery, and also with other satellite-collected data.  Here’s a view of the situation using satellite Automated Information System (AIS) data, radio-frequency tracking information that vessels continually broadcast so they can avoid running into each other at sea:

AIS map on March 24, 2014 showing ship traffic backed up as a result of an oil spill in the Houston Ship Channel. Colored triangles mark the locations of vessels of different types. Port of Houston is at upper left.

Detail from above, showing large offshore holding area where dozens of cargo ships and tankers lie at anchor, awaiting clearance to enter the ship channel (marked by dashed pink line).

This shows a large “waiting room” in the Gulf just outside the entrance to the channel where dozens of vessels — mostly oil tankers and cargo ships — are anchored, waiting for clearance to proceed into port.  There are also quite a few vessels bottled up in port, waiting to get out, including a few large cruise ships.

You can see some of the AIS data yourself, and query individual vessels, at the cool Marine Traffic ship-tracking site.

National Response Center Down For Repairs + Oil in the Mississippi

Text reposted from SkyTruth, images from Gulf Restoration Network

Savvy SkyTruth Alerts users may have noticed that we haven’t published any new oil or hazmat spill reports from the Coast Guard-operated National Response Center (NRC) since February 20.  If you go directly to the NRC website, you see a “down for maintenance” message.  Polluters and concerned citizens can still submit reports to the NRC by phone, at 1-800-424-8802.  But without the website, we can’t search for or download pollution reports.  And that leaves a big hole in our SkyTruth Alerts map, and in the daily updates we email to Alerts subscribers.

It’s also really bad timing, given the major oil spill that happened on the lower Mississippi River due to a barge accident on Saturday afternoon.

We emailed an NRC spokesperson yesterday morning and asked when and why the site went down, and when the Coast Guard expects it to be operational again, but so far we haven’t gotten a response.  If anyone has info to share, please post it as a comment to this blog.

From Gulf Restoration Network, photos of Mississippi River oil spill…

[The Lens] Volunteers use airborne patrols, satellite photos to spot oil spills along Louisiana coast

By Bob Marshall, Staff Writer at The Lens – Original post at thelensnola.org

Jonathan Henderson was shouting to be heard over the engine noise in the small plane as it circled above an oil rig just off the Louisiana coast. A ribbon of colored water extended from the rig for about 100 yards, and Henderson had asked the pilot for a closer look.

“Right there, that’s sheen,” Henderson yelled. “In fact, rainbow sheen tells us it’s oil, and it’s probably coming from that platform.”

He snapped a few pictures and jotted on a notepad.

“When we get back, I’ll make a report,” says Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group based in New Orleans.

In the last three years, after 200 surveys by air, boat and foot, Henderson has made hundreds of oil pollution reports as part of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium. In what has developed into an almost 24/7 effort, members use private boats, planes and even satellite imagery to spot and evaluate insults to Louisiana’s coastal environment — all at no cost to taxpayers.


Their effort would be noteworthy solely for its altruistic nature. But what may be more remarkable is that they are the only ones doing this work.

No state or federal agency has cops regularly walking this beat. Instead, state and federal governments, which collect billions in royalties from the permit holders each year, rely on companies to turn themselves in for violating environmental law or the terms of their permits.

“We don’t have people whose job it is to go out looking for spills; we rely on people to report things,” said Gregory Langley, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which says its mission is to protect public health, safety and welfare “while considering sound policies regarding employment and economic development.”

The state Department of Natural Resources has 12 inspectors who check wells along the coast for compliance with regulations, a spokesman said. Though those checks are conducted without notice, the industry is so large that the department’s goal is to inspect each one every three years.

This badly leaking rig off the Mississippi River delta was spotted and reported last September by Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network on a flight provided by another environmental group, SouthWings. The information was relayed for analysis to SkyTruth, yet another green group in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium. The coalition was formed because no government agency regularly monitors conditions at the tens of thousands of rigs and wells in the coastal zone.

Jonathan Henderson / Gulf Restoration Network

This badly leaking rig off the Mississippi River delta was spotted and reported last September by Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network on a flight provided by another environmental group, SouthWings. The information was relayed for analysis to SkyTruth, which estimates the size of spills. The groups are part of the Gulf Monitoring Consortium, because no government agency regularly monitors conditions at the tens of thousands of rigs and wells in the coastal zone.


The federal Clean Water Act literally requires anyone who drops anything into the water that creates a sheen of any size, or falls as a solid to the bottom, to report it to the National Response Center, which is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“That’s our gold standard because that’s what the law says,” said Michael Anderson of the Coast Guard’s Gulf Coast Incident Management Team, which is based in New Orleans.

If oil spills onto land, however, state law applies. Louisiana says permit holders only have to make a report if the amount spilled reaches a “reportable quantity,” designated as one barrel, or 42 gallons.

“Basically they get to pollute for free to a certain level,” said Andy Zellinger, an analyst for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a member of the monitoring group.

When the National Response Center receives a report, it notifies the proper state and federal agencies.

Typically, state agencies relay the information to a local first responder, which could be the State Police or sheriffs’ offices, which conduct on-site inspections. But if the polluter thinks there’s a risk to human health or a serious threat to the environment, the company must immediately notify the Coast Guard or the state agency as well.


Records show there’s a lot to report each year in coastal Louisiana.

The Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office estimates that about 330,000 barrels, 20 percent of all the oil spilled in the nation each year, leaks from Louisiana facilities. The agency says that amount comes from 1,500 reports each year — but that’s far lower than Coast Guard records show.

Anderson said his office responded to 23,371 reports in Louisiana over the last five years. Even taking out the 5,781 from 2010, the year of the Deepwater Horizon spill, that averages about 4,400 per year.

Most of that pollution takes place in the coastal zone — the interior wetlands and open Gulf — which is where most of the 290,000 oil and gas wells permitted over the years are located, according to a database at the state Department of Natural Resources.

The concentration of the industry in Louisiana means more spills are likely to happen here, but Henderson said that until the Deepwater Horizon disaster, even environmental groups were not fully aware of how routine spills are.


It was during the months after the spill, as Henderson made almost daily flights to survey where oil was headed, that he realized there was a less dramatic but more widespread and persistent problem.

“I’d be going over the marsh to check on what was happening in the open Gulf and I’d look down and see sheen in places where we knew BP’s oil hadn’t reached — or at least hadn’t reached yet,” Henderson said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, who’s keeping an eye on this?’

“And the answer to that, of course, is ‘No one.’ So we had to do something about that.”

Henderson began to make regular flights over the coast, becoming expert at recording the types of data that help the Coast Guard respond.

Meanwhile, other environmental groups were homing in on the same issue, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper and SouthWings, a group of private pilots who donate their time and aircraft for environmental monitoring.

Those groups often got help from SkyTruth, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that uses satellite photographs to analyze National Response Center reports and find unreported trouble spots nationwide.

Those environmental groups formed the Gulf Monitoring Consortium in 2011 to share information and plan events.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 5.18.20 PM When a member of the consortium makes a report to the National Response Center, SkyTruth often quickly finds the location on a satellite image. Using a calculation accepted by oil spill experts, its analysis typically indicates that a spill is 10 times larger than the company’s report, said David Manthos of SkyTruth.

According to a consortium report, the companies that filed 2,093 spill reports from October 2010 through September 2011 estimated the total pollution at about 250,000 gallons. The SkyTruth evaluation put the figure between 1.5 and 2.2 million gallons.

“We have problems with non-reporting, but also with under-reporting,” Manthos said. “They’re operating pretty much on the honor system out there. The Coast Guard has limited resources. If the amount is small, they are less likely to go out and take a look.

“That’s where we try to focus our efforts.”


The consortium’s efforts have led to several regularly-updated websites that chart the widespread nature and frequency of oil spills in Louisiana’s coastal zone and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade's website allows people to zoom in on reported oil spills.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s iWitness Pollution Map andSkyTruth’s national Alerts Map show a series of red dots spreading across the Louisiana coast like a rash.

By clicking on the dots visitors see the NRC record, including the polluter’s original estimate of the spill and SkyTruth’s evaluation.

“Everything is right there,” said the Bucket Brigade’s Zellinger. “You don’t have to wade through the NRC site; these interactive maps take you right to the history of that report in your area, including what we believe is the real size of that release.”

The consortium has been especially effective in locating trouble spots during the tropical storm season. Henderson and Gulf Monitoring Consortium colleagues were in the air and on the water as soon as conditions were safe after Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

Their report, “Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Industries Still Not Storm Ready,” catalogued the 341,044 gallons of oil, chemicals and untreated wastewater that were reported to have been leaked into wetlands. The group said the actual amount spilled likely was much greater because only 20 percent of the 139 reports included size estimates.


No one knows the efficacy of the monitoring alliance better than Henderson, who estimates he has taken more than 75 monitoring flights since attention turned from the Deepwater Horizon to the rest of the Gulf and the coastal wetlands in 2011.

Now 38, Henderson still makes each flight with the enthusiasm of a rookie because he believes the work is making a difference.

“Many times if we don’t make a report, the company won’t – and I can say that because there are many times when they make a report after we do,” he said.

Since 2011, Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network has made more than 200 trips across the coastal zone by plane, boat and on foot to look for oil spills. No government agency makes such trips, relying instead on polluters to turn themselves in.

“Sure, there’s a logistical problem for the companies. We’re talking about thousands of facilities spread out over tens of thousands of square miles. Most of those don’t have personnel on them, and most of them are not serviced on a daily basis. So sometimes, I just beat them to the spill.”

He continued, “But then you have to ask, ‘How many spills are we missing? How much oil has been leaking into the wetlands that nobody knows about because they don’t find it until days after it’s begun?’”

And while proud of the job he and his peers are doing, he resents that nonprofits must “beg for money to do a job that government should be doing.”

Since 2011, Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network has made more than 200 trips across the coastal zone by plane, boat and on foot to look for oil spills. No government agency makes such trips, relying instead on polluters to turn themselves in.

Henderson pointed to a similar independent monitoring program that has been in place in Alaska since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. That program is funded by a fee on the users of the Alyeska Pipeline.

The independent monitoring is done by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council, established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

“Those councils were established only for Alaska. The Gulf was left out,” Henderson said. “I think it’s time for Congress to take a look at what we’re finding here — at the size of the industry and the risk to this valuable ecosystem — and do the same thing here.”

In the meantime he said, he’ll keep flying and looking.


Bob Marshall covers environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories and issues of Louisiana’s wetlands was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. In 2012 Marshall was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Loyola University School of Communications Den of Distinction. He can be reached at (504) 232-5013.

[GRN] Bird’s Eye View: More Pollution Incidents to Report with New Photos

By Jonathan Henderson at Gulf Restoration Network – Reposted from HealthyGulf.org

b1As I wrap up things before heading off for a much needed holiday vacation, I wanted to be sure to share with you some photos of GRN’s most recent Gulf monitoring trips. As you look at the photos, please be sure to read the included descriptions for important details. After you have finished reading this blog and viewing the photos, if like me you are feeling angry, sad, frustrated, and motivated to do something, please take a minute to take action. There are many ways that you can help and I have included some options for you at the end of this blog. But first, below is a brief summary of our most recent watchdogging trips.

On November 26th a buddy of mine, Edwin Miles, and I drove down to Grand Isle to look for ongoing BP impacts. We went to Grand Isle State Park and it didn’t take very long to find hundreds of tar balls presumed to be ongoing impacts from the BP disaster. I filed a report with the National Response Center (NRC) and the next morning received a call from the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s office. I was informed that based on my report, which included GPS coordinates, that a clean-up crew was on the way to remove the oil. Please click below to view a slideshow of the photos then click “Show Info” to read the descriptions.

On December 11th, I accompanied Debbie Elliot, a national reporter with National Public Radio (NPR), to Elmer’s Island. Debbie is doing a news report about ongoing BP clean-up operations. In addition to me, Debbie conducted several interviews with other individuals for a story that is scheduled to air nationally on Sunday, December 22nd during NPR’s Weekend Edition. Check your local NPR affiliates for listings, and be sure to check their website to listen online and view photos. On this trip to Elmer’s Island, thousands of tar balls could be found on the shoreline. It took me less than three minutes to fill an entire sample jar. It was disgusting. Also on Elmer’s Island that day there was a staging area for a BP oil excavation operation currently underway on a private beach adjacent to Elmer’s. An estimated 200,000 pounds of oily material has been removed so far from this location in the last couple of weeks. The oil is buried deep in the sand on the beach. While I was not allowed to go and document the excavation operation, as you will see if you keep reading I had something else up my sleeve!

On December 12th, I conducted an overflight as part of GRN’s ongoing watchdogging of pollution in the Gulf. A very special thank you is in order for GRN member Lamar Billups for sponsoring this flight. With me on this flight was Bob Marshall, who covers environmental issues for The Lens.  While at The Times-Picayune, Bob’s work chronicling Louisiana’s wetlands was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. Bob is working on a report about the ongoing efforts by GRN to document and report new leaks and spills and our involvement with the Gulf Monitoring Consortium. Be on the lookout for Bob’s written report which will appear in The Lens as well as his radio report which will air sometime in the next couple of weeks on NPR affiliate WWNO. On this flyover, we transected coastal wetlands, bays, offshore, and along the Mississippi River looking for pollution incidents. While it was a gorgeous day on the Louisiana coast, it was windy, which makes it tricky to spot oil sheens, especially smaller ones. Take a look at the photos and read the descriptions to see what we found. Based on our findings, I filed two reports with the National Response Center: one for coal and petroleum coke in the Mississippi River, and one for the ongoing Taylor Energy leak 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana. I did spot several other locations such as a platform in Barataria Bay that may have been leaking but the wind and waves made it too difficult to know for sure. As such, no NRC reports were filed for those. As for that ‘something up my sleeve’ regarding the BP oil excavation operation on Grand Isle of which I was not permitted to access, I flew over that location and have included photos in the slideshow.

Finally as promised, here are some ways to take action if you don’t like what you see in the photos:

1. BP has spent millions of dollars on glossy ads saying everything is ok in the Gulf. Help us counter BP’s lies with real, documented truth. Share this report with your friends and family and share on social media such as Facebook. Also, be sure to “Like” GRN’s Facebook page so you can receive daily updates from the Gulf.

2. As the trial for the BP disaster continues, it’s more important than ever that the Justice Department holds BP accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Take action by clicking here to send a letter to the Justice Department. We’ve made it easy for you so all you have to do is enter in your information and click send.

3. GRN is committed to ongoing monitoring and reporting of pollution in the Gulf. However, the monitoring trips are very expensive, especially for a small environmental nonprofit. Make a donation and become a member by clicking here. Your tax deductible contribution gives us the tools and the resources to do this work.

4. Report any leaks, spills, and tar balls you encounter in the Gulf region to the National Response Center.

Happy Holidays!

[Editor’s Note] To get notifications whenever citizens or polluters submit NRC reports in the Gulf of Mexico, sign up for SkyTruth Alerts at – alerts.skytruth.org.

Bird’s Eye View: New Leaks Discovered and Reported

EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure see the report on the first flight from GMC member Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper – /gmc/oil-and-gas-leaks-in-the-gulf-business-as-usual/

BLOG GMC September 30 2013 661Earlier this week, GRN participated in three Gulf Monitoring Consortium coastal flyovers as part of our ongoing efforts to raise awareness and document ongoing oil and gas industry pollution and destruction of Louisiana’s wetlands and coastal environment. Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) is a rapid response alliance that collects, analyzes and publishes images and other information from space, sky, and the surface to investigate and expose oil pollution incidents that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. GMC members engage in systematic monitoring of oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico using satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-ground and in-the-water observation and sampling to identify, locate and track new and ongoing oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

BLOG2The first flight was on the morning of Monday, September 30th and was provided by GMC member SouthWings and piloted by Bruce McGregor. GRN filed four reports with the National Response Center based on leaks that we encountered. For a detailed report from this flight including photos by Jeffrey Dubinsky of Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, links to GMC partner Skytruth’s alert system which tracks NRC reports, and other details, please see this blog post by Paul Orr of the Lower Mississippi River Keeper and LEAN. GRN Photos and details from this flyover can be viewed by visiting the link below. Be sure to click on the photos for descriptions:

A second flight on September 30th was also provided by GMC member SouthWings and piloted by Bruce McGregor. The purpose of this flight was to survey oil, gas, and pipeline Permit locations and corresponding damage within the jurisdiction of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The SLFPA-E has filed a lawsuit against 97 oil, gas, and pipeline companies for damages they have caused to Louisiana wetlands, damages that they have yet to repair or mitigate. GRN invitedDemocracy Now! along on this flight to provide them with aerial imagery of destroyed wetlands resulting from oil, gas and pipeline canals. You can view the first part of Democracy Now’s report here. You can view the second part of that report here.

On the morning of October 1st, a third flyover provided by GMC member SouthWings and piloted by Bruce McGregor was conducted. As a result of that flight, GRN filed an additional 4 NRC reports for new leaks discovered. To view images and details of these leaks, please visit the link below and be sure to click on each photo for descriptions:


What we continue to learn from these over flights is that the Gulf carries on as the “energy sacrifice zone” for the rest of the United States. The communities that live, work, and recreate in the Gulf region deserve much better from both industry and our government. Please read this article by oil spill expert Dr. Rick Steiner to understand how the creation of a Gulf Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council can and should be implemented to protect our coast and communities. To learn more and become involved in the fight for an RCAC, please visit here  and help support some of our friends and allies fighting for an RCAC.

Jonathan Henderson is the Coastal Resiliency Organizer for GRN.

Oil and Gas Leaks in the Gulf – Business as Usual

On September 30, 2013 the Gulf Monitoring Consortium conducted a monitoring flight of south-east Louisiana and found what it always finds; oil and gas operations spilling oil and other pollutants into the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana coastal wetlands. Here are some highlights, or perhaps, “lowlights” from the flight:

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

The slick from the still leaking Taylor wells off of the Mississippi River delta stretched into the distance as usual and reminded the passengers of the BP oil disaster. This oil has been leaking into the Gulf of Mexico since 2004. An NRC report was attempted to be made by GMC but was rejected because NRC reports are also filed daily by Taylor. The NRC report for Sept. 30 can be seen here: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/9248a2f7-f0dc-349c-b43d-7aa44524e08e To learn more about the Taylor leak go to: http://blog.skytruth.org/2013/06/9-years-countless-gallons-spilled-no.html and http://lmrk.org/lmrk-news-feed/judge-denies-taylor-energy-motion-to-dismiss-clean-water-act-violations-suit/

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

A sizable oil slick was seen south of Port Fourchon near a Chevron platform and appears that it could be from a leaking pipeline below the surface. Reported to the NRC by GMC: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/318c5b35-3b82-3833-8111-6d77c4b2a56d There does not appear to be an NRC report from the responsible party.


A badly leaking platform in East Bay near wells owned by EPL Oil & Gas and Shell. Submitted to the NRC by GMC: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/09b9a069-f208-3f08-92cd-0606a3e53746 This appears to be the NRC report submitted by EPL Oil & Gas: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/87b6e429-9424-3c7a-b0eb-c36a8b1ccb27 with the cause of the leak being reported as internal corrosion from a flow line.

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

Oil and gas wells also produce wastewater called “produced water” which often contains high levels of salts, chemicals from drilling fluids, and naturally occuring radioactive material. The state of Louisiana allows produced waters from oil and gas rigs in Louisiana State waters to be discharged directly into the Gulf of Mexico without any treatment. Due to a lawsuit brought by Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) the court has ordered the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to examine the impacts of produced waters on Louisiana’s environment.

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

A leaking oil well that appears to be owned by Apache Corporation near Golden Meadow. Submitted to the NRC by GMC: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/9dec11d3-84ea-3942-b4ef-1e8cc54f8fe7 This appears to be the NRC report submitted by Apache Corporation on the day after our flight (Oct. 1) for the leak: http://alerts.skytruth.org/report/2f638365-70c9-3851-a2a9-a5b334d785e9 with the cause of the leak being reported as a corroded flow line. The Gulf environment is highly corrosive to metals.

Coastal wetlands destroyed by oil and gas activity.

Louisiana coastal wetlands cut into shreds by oil and gas activity. A lawsuit brought by a levee authority in South East Louisiana against oil and gas companies has re-ignited the debate over wether oil and gas companies should be held responsible for the damge that they have caused to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.

The flight was provided by GMC member SouthWings and piloted by Bruce McGregor. NRC reports and additional photo documentation made by Jonathan Henderson of Gulf Restoration Network and photo documentation made by Jeffrey Dubinsky of Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. Pre-flight NRC analysis by SkyTruth.

To see all of the photos from this flight go to:

Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science Joins GMC

The Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) welcomes the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) as the newest partner in a collaborative effort to detect and respond to oil and petrochemical pollution in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Public Lab has been working with various Consortium members since its founding during the BP Oil Disaster.

Public Lab pioneered balloon and kite mapping techniques, which have been used to map oiled marshes of Louisiana and monitor wetlands restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast. Additionally, Public Lab supports the open source development of low-cost versions of several other important scientific tools, including spectrometers for identifying unknown substances in water samples, infrared cameras for tracking plant health, and monitors for tracking indoor air quality.

 Public Lab brings experience, resources and reputation to the Consortium, providing connections to the open-source and Maker communities, and contributing a point of view that sees every resident along the coast as a “citizen scientist.” Public Lab provides the tools necessary for underserved citizens to collect rigorous data using simple, low-cost tools, and educates them on ways to use this data for advocacy around environmental health concerns in their community.  Most recently, Public Lab tools have been used in collaboration with the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) to monitor expanding coal/petcoke terminals in Plaquemines Parish, LA, and in partnership with NASA’s DEVELOP program to investigate refinery flaring via DIY distance spectrometry.

 The GMC is an innovative partnership combining remote sensing technologies, aerial observation, and photography; and resources on-the-ground and in-the-water to detect, document, and respond to pollution. Each member contributes their expertise to this integrated approach – SkyTruth provides guidance on areas of concern based on image analysis and digital mapping, SouthWings coordinates volunteer pilots to get GMC members in the air to monitor for and document pollution incidents, and Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Waterkeeper Alliance members such as the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper provide both local knowledge of on-going issues and resources on the surface to “groundtruth” what we observe from the sky. PublicLab equips local groups with co-developed, appropriate, affordable monitoring technologies to make field time more objective and effective.

Read more about Public Lab’s presence in the Gulf Coast, explore research being done locally with Public Lab tools, and check out recent press about Public Lab’s work.

Lessons From Hurricane Isaac – Will the Gulf Coast Fare Better in 2013?

In response to the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) report “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready,” an industry trade group issued a response challenging some of the report’s premises. On August 9, Energize LA, a public relations site operated by the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA) posted a blog entry calling the report “Weird Science.” Their critique focused on three main areas, which they called “false justifications” for the report:

“Hurricanes are entirely predictable; Isaac was not a major storm; and refineries have no obvious reason to remain operational during weather events”

– “Weird Science: How ‘Lessons From Hurricane Isaac’ Is Flawed From Before the Start,” EnergizeLa.com


Predictability of Hurricanes: Hurricanes are hundreds of miles across and relatively slow moving. While predicting the precise details of a storm is subject to many variables, the areas at risk are known well in advance of landfall and state regulators even call around to make sure facilities have implemented their storm preparedness protocols. By Sunday, August 26, the National Hurricane Center was predicting the storm was turning toward Louisiana and would make landfall in 2-3 days. They warned, as they do on all prediction maps, “hazardous condition can occur outside of the cone.” As Energize LA themselves noted in their discussion of this point, the National Weather Service advised on August 24th, “[i]t is important not to focus on the exact track due to the uncertainties in the forecast and the fact that Isaac has a large area of tropical-storm-force winds associated with it.” Did operators read this statement as a warning to prepare for the storm regardless of the predicted track? Or as uncertainty whether the storm would impact the Gulf Coast at all?

However, more than the short-term prediction of an individual storm event, the GMC report emphasizes the fact that hurricanes are “an annual occurrence in the Gulf Region (pg. 3).” Our report also stresses that:

“Gulf industrial facilities continue to show disturbing susceptibility to damage from the annual barrage of strong, yet predictable, summer storms, with Gulf Coast residents and the environment repeatedly paying the price.” (pg. 9)

Modeling probable wind, rainfall, and flood events that could impact an area or industrial facility is an advanced science rooted in meteorology, geomorphology, and statistics. The repeated incidence of pollution associated with storms suggests that the standards to which storm defenses are built may not be adequate to protect the health of the people and ecosystems surrounding these facilities. If they are adequate, then why does pollution occur routinely when storms hit?

Perhaps one explanation is that predicting the “storm of the century” is limited to past weather events, from which future probability is extrapolated. However, if the scientific consensus on global climate change is correct, then past weather records will be insufficient to predict frequency and intensity of storms, and low-lying lands will be more at risk as sea level rises. If this is the explanation for poor prediction of weather-related hazards over the long-term, then when will industry start to incorporate these risks into protecting their facilities and their neighbors?

Severity of Hurricane Isaac: Even if one considers that Isaac’s storm surge flooding was anomalous for a Category 1 storm, many questions remain. Why did some of the pollution reports have little or nothing to do with storm surge and flooding? GMC member organizations found reports of air pollution from malfunctioning gas recovery units and operators exceeding their variances trying to run flares against hurricane force winds, while other members documented upset railroad tankers that could have been moved before the storm arrived. Furthermore, recognizing there are many variables to the impact of a storm, how many hurricanes have set some kind of record for storm surge, rainfall per hour, cumulative rainfall, peak wind speed, sustained wind speed, resulting flooding, etc.? Returning to the premise that hurricanes are an annual occurrence on the Gulf Coast, was Hurricane Isaac really that anomalous?

To our knowledge, “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac” is the first comprehensive report on cumulative pollution from fossil fuel and petrochemical facilities in the wake of a specific storm event. If Isaac was an anomaly, future studies will show the difference. GMC is concerned, however, that the Energize LA critique of our study made no suggestion that operators would try to do better the next time the Gulf is assailed by a storm.

Refinery Operations During Storms: Our report, “Lessons from Hurricane Isaac,” did not attempt to speculate on the reason for maintaining operations into the storm. We merely documented the reported successes or failures of refineries to balance the “moral dilemma” they claim to face; that is, deciding between staying open to fuel hospital and evacuation efforts, or shutting down. It should be noted that four of the six refineries examined did shut down at some point, but not all of the pollution was directly related to the storm. For example, ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refinery started a controlled shutdown on August 27, the day before Isaac made landfall. However, the refinery released over 58 tons of sulfur dioxide, not because of the hurricane, but because the flare gas recovery system was not working.

Controlled shutdowns are a part of operating a refinery, and hurricanes are a part of operating in the Gulf Coast region. Because this is a routine challenge faced by operators, are there ways to mitigate the risk of operating and yet maintain the fuel supply to critical infrastructure and evacuating citizens? How much would it cost to mitigate the “catch 22” situation faced annually by operators who make decisions that impact public safety, the health of the Gulf Coast, and the safety of their workers?

Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready

On August 6, five environmental organizations comprising the Gulf Monitoring Consortium announced their findings from a review of pollution reported from petrochemical and fossil fuel processing facilities during and immediately after Hurricane Isaac. Based self-reporting by “responsible parties” to state and federal authorities, GMC members found operators blamed the storm for at least the following pollution from their facilities:

341 ,044 gallons of oil, chemicals, and untreated waste-water

192.3 tons of gases and other materials (354,819 pounds)

12.6 million gallons of untreated “process area water” from one overwhelmed facility 

After an additional review of pre-storm aerial surveys; post-storm monitoring efforts in the air, on the ground, and in the water; and analysis of satellite and aerial survey imagery, the Consortium concludes:

Substantial amounts of pollution were released into the environment due to damage from the only hurricane to make landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2012.

Harmful chemicals, including recognized neurotoxins and carcinogens, were released due to damage from the storm.

 Despite advance warning of the storm path and intensity, operators used the weather as an excuse for polluting.

Fossil fuel infrastructure in the Gulf Region is vulnerable to predictable tropical weather events.

Oil from the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to wash ashore. 

Download the full report: Gulf Coast Coal and Petrochemical Facilities Still Not Storm Ready 

Updated August 7, 2013 10:40 am

Below: Image highlights from GMC monitoring trips and Investigations – photos may be reproduced so long as credit is attributed to the individual or organizations named.

Hercules 265 Drill Rig Post-Fire

SkyTruth – July 26, 2031: Yesterday, the runaway gas well at the Hercules 265 jackup drill rig in the Gulf “bridged over” – essentially choked itself with sand, rock and other debris – shutting off the flow of natural gas, extinguishing the fire that had been burning since Tuesday night. Here is a post-fire photo of the rig.  The small production platform it had been working at is a total loss.  The jackup itself has sustained plenty of damage but it looks like much is still salvageable.  And a very small slick is visible next to the rig.

The main questions many folks are asking is — what happened to the blowout preventer?  Why did the BOP fail?

When are those new BOP regulations that we’ve been talking about since the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster going to be implemented?  And would those new regs address the cause of failure in this incident?

Post-fire photo of Hercules 265 jackup drill rig in South Timbalier Block 220, taken July 25, 2013. Photo from BSEE via gCaptain.

Drilling safety comes down to a lot of nitty gritty details.  But the BOP is a critical element of safety that deserves the highest level of attention.  It’s the main thing protecting us from the next major oil spill.

And it’s way past time we implemented all of the recommendations made by the National Spill Commission in the wake of the BP / Deepwater Horizon disaster.  With a renewed drilling boom underway in the Gulf, and the full-on resumption of high-risk, high-pressure deepwater drilling, we can’t afford not to.