Gulf Monitoring Consortium Flight April 10, 2012


On April 10, we conducted another Gulf Monitoring Consortium flight. For anyone who doesn't know about it, the Gulf Monitoring Consortium is a unique partnership of SouthWings, SkyTruth, and the Waterkeeper Alliance that is systematically monitoring oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico with satellite images and mapping, aerial reconnaissance and photography, and on-the-water observation and sampling (see the Consortium's report here).

For this flight, our New Orleans-based volunteer pilot Lance Rydberg flew with Paul Orr, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, in his two-seat Citabria. Their route took them from New Orleans, parallel to the Mississippi River to the gulf and back, passing over several points of interest.

First, at our request, Lance and Paul got some photos of the Lake Hermitage marsh creation site, a restoration project underway in the Mississippi River delta. This and other restoration projects aim to mitigate some of the worst land loss caused by decades of canal cutting and drilling by the oil and gas industry, as well as river management that has largely eliminated the sediment loads that have rebuilt the marshes and uplands of the lower Mississippi for thousands of years.

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The Lake Hermitage site is one of the sites that has been proposed for funding through fines from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. We are trying to document as many of these areas as possible so that we can monitor their recovery over the years, and this overflight was one part of that project.

The flight then continued southeast to the Taylor wellsite. This is a former oil drilling platform about 11 miles offshore in the gulf that was damaged during Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and has been leaking ever since. In February, our friends and Gulf Monitoring Consortium partners, the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed suit against the owner of the well complex, Taylor Energy Company, to try to force a clean-up of the site.

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We flew out to the site to document the extent of the surface slick caused by the leak and compare it to Taylor's official estimates of the volume. We first tried to use the same protocol that Taylor uses, which requires using GPS readings to "draw" a rectangular box around the sheen, estimating the percent coverage of that box and percentage of different visual characteristics of the sheen, and finally calculating a volume using standardized coverage rates for the different types of sheen. We quickly realized, however, that this method was infeasible from a moving plane. We then attempted to estimate the volume of the slick by measuring the width and length, and got results ranging from 250 to over 400 gallons from a slick nearly 14 miles long. About 2-1/2 hours earlier, Taylor reported an estimate for the same slick of only 0.58 gallons in a sheen 75 feet wide and 4.5 miles long. This vast discrepancy suggests that Taylor experiences the same difficulties applying the protocol we did, that the protocol is inherently inaccurate, or that Taylor is deliberately underestimating the volume it is releasing.

Finally, SkyTruth alerts over several days before the flight suggested a rash of oil-related incidents near the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in the "birds-foot" delta of the Mississippi River (For example, this one). Although individually, these incidents were seemingly minor, they collectively suggested a potentially significant problem, so we asked Paul and Lance to check them out. They weren't able to find any signs of oil in the area, suggesting that these are actually isolated incidents that happened to occur about the same time, not a single large problem.