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What's that in the Gulf?

What's that in the Gulf?

(originally posted on

oil.jpgMardi Gras is over but it was a roller coaster weekend for the Gulf
following the siting Saturday morning of a possible oil spill off the
Louisiana coast. On Sunday an oil-like substance began washing up in
the marshes, sending environmental advocates and Coast Guard officials
scrambling to solve the mystery.

Reports varied almost hourly throughout the weekend, claiming both
the material in the water and the substance on shore could be anything
from natural sediment flows to a miles-long oil sheen connected to last
year's Deepwater Horizon explosion. After several citizen scientists
on regular fly-overs of the Gulf reported to the Coast Guard seeing
miles of "rainbow sheen" resembling oil on Saturday, the investigation
began. It was "confirmed oil"
on Sunday morning according to local news sources and officials who
reported patches of oil stretching several miles into the water and
reaching Louisiana beaches.

Yet the same source,
later on Sunday, claimed that the sheen was mostly sediment agitated by
both natural causes and dredging, a substance both safe and unrelated
to Deepwater Horizon. And by Monday it was "goop,"
a combination made mostly of sediment with some trace and non-dangerous
amounts of oil, according to the Coast Guard. Mystery solved.

Not so fast! The sediment sheen did nothing to explain the "oily
substance" that began washing ashore in Louisiana on Sunday. It now
appears that this second substance was in fact oil released into the Gulf for at least four hours on Saturday by a hurricane-damaged oilrig.

By Monday night, it was finally figured out:
the Coast Guard announced that what washed ashore was "oily matter" of
unknown origin. Nearly one year after the BP disaster began, oil again
threatens an ecologically sensitive area including a wildlife
sanctuary, potentially related to mechanical failures on a Gulf Coast
rig. Officials are now deploying thousands of feet of boom to contain
the substance. Local officials have called it a "significant amount" of
oil and are taking money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay
for clean up.

And the latest report...shows
that they are still not sure what the substance is or where it came
from! It will be days to weeks before this mystery is solved and likely
longer before the clean-up is complete.

So what can be learned from the incident? It's clear once again that
rushing to conclusions to "out-report" other media sources is a recipe
for disaster. My inbox overflowed all weekend with reports that by and
large ended up contradicted or, at the least, incomplete. I can only
imagine the fears of  Gulf Coast residents who are still recovering
from last year's oil spill, especially when they saw an oil-like
substance wash up on Sunday.

But there's a deeper lesson too - about the uncertainty and dangers
of oil.  These incidents are nothing like the Deepwater Horizon in
magnitude - it's a small amount of oil that will likely be cleaned up
with little long-term impact. Yet, when our best experts can't even
identify oil in the water or on the land, or detect the source of a
spill, how can we justify increasingly deep and potentially dangerous oil drilling? And are we thinking of those who bear the brunt of the danger of our oil economy? It's time to end this oily mess.

Published: 3/23/2011

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