The Gulf spill, Chesapeake Bay and nitrates

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

BP manages to capture part of oil spill
After more than three weeks of efforts to stop a gushing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers achieved some success when they used a milelong pipe to capture some of the oil and divert it to a drill ship on the surface some 5,000 feet above the wellhead, company officials said.

 After two false starts, engineers successfully inserted a narrow tube into the damaged pipe from which most of the oil is leaking.

 “It’s working as planned,” Kent Wells, a senior executive vice president of BP, said at a briefing in Houston on Sunday afternoon. “So we do have oil and gas coming to the ship now, we do have a flare burning off the gas, and we have the oil that’s coming to the ship going to our surge tank.”

Mr. Wells said he could not yet say how much oil had been captured or what percentage of the oil leaking from a 21-inch riser pipe was now flowing into the 4-inch-wide insertion tube.
–The New York Times

Gulf spill could be 5 times official estimate
The amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is far greater than official estimates suggest, according to an exclusive NPR analysis.

At NPR’s request, experts analyzed video that BP released. Their findings suggest the BP spill is already far larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, which spilled at least 250,000 barrels of oil.

BP has said repeatedly that there is no reliable way to measure the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by looking at the oil gushing out of the pipe. But scientists say there are actually many proven techniques for doing just that. 

Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, analyzed videotape of the seafloor gusher using a technique called particle image velocimetry. 

A computer program simply tracks particles and calculates how fast they are moving. Wereley put the BP video of the gusher into his computer. He made a few simple calculations and came up with an astonishing value for the rate of the oil spill: 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.
–National Public Radio

 Litany of problems listed for BP shut-off device
A House energy panel investigation has found that the blowout preventer that failed to stop a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a dead battery in its control pod, leaks in its hydraulic system, a “useless” test version of a key component and a cutting tool that wasn’t strong enough to shear through steel joints in the well pipe and stop the flow of oil.

 In a devastating review of the blowout preventer, which BP said was supposed to be “fail-safe,” Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight, said that documents and interviews show that the device was anything but. 

The comments came in a hearing in which lawmakers grilled senior executives from BP and oilfield service firms Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron, maker of the blowout preventer. In one exchange, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) pressed BP on why it seemed to be “flailing” to deal with a spill only 2 percent as large as what it had said it could handle in its license application.
–The Washington Post 

Some permitting bypassed for Gulf drilling
The federal Minerals Management Service gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.

 Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf each day.

The Minerals Management Service, or M.M.S., also routinely overruled its staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns about the safety and the environmental impact of certain drilling proposals in the gulf and in Alaska, according to a half-dozen current and former agency scientists.
–The New York Times

West Coast drilling ban proposed
The political ripples from the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster spread in the capital as six West Coast senators proposed a permanent ban on drilling in the Pacific and another group tried to raise oil company liability in a spill to $10 billion from the current $75 million.

 The move by senators from California, Oregon and Washington, all Democrats, was largely symbolic because there are no plans at present to open the West Coast to drilling. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican, withdrew a modest plan for new offshore drilling shortly after the gulf accident.
–The New York Times  

Nitrates taint California drinking water
The wells that supply more than 2 million Californians with drinking water have been found to contain harmful levels of nitrates over the past 15 years — a time marked by lax regulatory efforts to control the colorless and odorless contaminant. 

Nitrates, a byproduct of farm fertilizer and some wastewater treatment systems, are now the most common groundwater contaminant in California and across the country. 

They show up primarily in private wells, especially in rural California, but also in some municipal water systems. State law requires public systems to remove nitrates. Many rural communities, however, don’t have access to the type of treatment systems available in metropolitan areas.
–The San Jose Mercury News

 DNR makes choice to drain Bovey mine pits
Governmental wrangling over how to take water from a chain of abandoned mining pits threatening to flood Bovey appears to be over.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten recently chose to lower the water level by diverting it west to the Prairie River. The Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board prefers an option that would pump water east to Holman Lake.

 “A project needs to be built as soon as possible,” Holsten wrote the board on May 5. “Even though the Holman-Trout option is the Board’s preferred project, I have determined that this option is not ready to proceed due to budget and time issues.”
The Duluth News-Tribune 

Urban Birding Festival set
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ fifth annual Urban Birding Festival will be held May 13-16 at various locations throughout Minneapolis-St. Paul. It’s a free celebration of springtime birds, especially those which inhabit urban areas. 

“There are excellent birding opportunities in the heart of a metropolitan area,” said Liz Harper, DNR nongame wildlife specialist. “Experts can help birders of all levels learn where the best birding spots are in the Twin Cities.” 

The festival is billed as “Where Birds and People Meet” and is being organized in part by the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program. It features a day-long series of events at Fridley’s Springbrook Nature Center and daytime and evening bird walks at various locations.
-DNR news release

 Gulf oil spill impacts Senate climate and energy bill
The long delayed and much amended Senate plan to deal with global warming and energy was unveiled to considerable fanfare but uncertain prospects.

 After nearly eight months of negotiations with lawmakers and interest groups, Senators John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, produced a 987-page bill that tries to limit climate-altering emissions, reduce oil imports and create millions of new energy-related jobs.

 The sponsors rewrote the section on offshore oil drilling in recent days to reflect mounting concern over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, raising new hurdles for any future drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts while allowing it to proceed off Louisiana, Texas and Alaska.
–The New York Times

EPA announces Chesapeake clean-up plan
Local farmers, communities with stormwater runoff problems and sewage plant owners got a clearer picture of their marching orders from a federal government that has vowed to do what it takes to clean up the Chesapeake Bay

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed a 176-page strategy outlining an “unprecedented” and “historic” effort on how it would accomplish the feat in six bay watershed states, including Pennsylvania.

The agency promised “rigorous new regulation and enforcement” to get the job done.

Exactly a year to the day earlier, President Barrack Obama had issued an executive order to clean up what he called a “national treasure” after decades of sputtering attempts.

EPA signed a legally binding agreement with time deadlines to require pollution to be reduced across the bay watershed. That agreement with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation citizens group followed a lawsuit which accused EPA of failing to restore the bay as required by the Clean Water Act.
–Lancaster Newspapers

Opinion:  Cautious optimism Chesapeake Bay
A turning point. A fresh start. A new hope. How often have Marylanders heard these words spoken about the future of the Chesapeake Bay over the last quarter-century or more? Usually they are articulated by politicians touting some new multi-state agreement or strategy that they insist will lead to a cleaner, healthier body of water.

In recent days, these all-too-familiar promises have been heard again, this time on the strength of two seemingly linked events — a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation against federal regulators for not sufficiently enforcing Clean Water Act standards and the release of the Obama administration’s plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay by essentially doing what the environmentalists have long been seeking.

Both boil down to promises of future actions. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and others say this time will be different, with specific goals and timetables for reducing the stream of pollutants, chiefly nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments, that have done so much harm to the bay and its tributaries.
–The Baltimore Sun

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