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Devastating BP Oil Spill was Inevitable as Government Failed to Learn from Past Tragedies

by Juan Gonzalez

A catastrophic oil spill was waiting to happen.

As the number of spills mounted, no one paid attention. Now the big one is here, and nothing can hide that gushing hole at the bottom of the sea. (Photo: AFP) That's what one expert who has studied government data on the huge and growing number of Gulf of Mexico spills is saying.

"There have been thousands of spills from 1990 to 2009," said Walter Hang, head of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca, N.Y., company that tracks and analyzes federal hazardous spill reports.

While many were small, the sheer number of incidents is mind-boggling, Hang said.

They include scores of oil platforms and rigs that were destroyed by hurricanes, wells that "lost control," deep-sea risers that became detached or severed, boats that collided into oil platforms and sank.

Spills have increased dramatically under the Bush and Obama administrations. The federal Minerals and Management Service has recorded some 330 significant spills - those over 2,100 gallons - since 1964. Nearly half happened in just the past 10 years.

And you can guess which company suffered the most spills since 2000?

That's right, BP.

Federal records show BP reported 23 significant oil spills in that time - including two within weeks of each other in 2003, on the same Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that was destroyed in the April 21 catastrophe.

Here a few samples of those BP reports. As you read them, keep in mind that the oil companies - and they alone - have historically provided the official estimates of their spills. By now, the whole world knows by now how much we can trust BP on that front.

  • Jan. 19, 2000: "The weekly function test was performed from the remote blowout preventer (BOP) panel in the off-shore installation manager's office. Instead of testing the blind shear rams, the engineer inadvertently pushed the LMRP [lower marine riser package].

    "The control panel buttons for the LMRP did not have enough security to prevent activating the wrong function. It was determined that 2,400 barrels of 60% synthetic-based drilling mud [with approximately 60,000 gallons of oil]" leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • May 21, 2003: "The spill occurred at Mississippi Canyon 778 ... The drilling vessel was in the process of pulling up the [well]hole when it experienced wave action heaving and jarring.

    "The riser parted in two places ... There was a release of 2,450 barrels of 58% Accolade synthetic-based drilling mud (SBM). It is estimated that [it] contained approximately 1,421 barrels (59,000 gallons) of Accolade synthetic base oil."
  • June 30, 2003: "An emergency riser disconnect occurred when drilling vessel failed to maintain station against 44 knot winds ... and 12-to-14-foot sea conditions." Approximately "944 barrels of Nova Plus synthetic base oil" were "released into the sea."
  • Aug. 3, 2003, on the Deepwater Horizon rig: "While drilling and using mud boost line to enhance cutting transportation in the riser, the driller noticed he was losing mud ...

    "The mud pumps were shut down and it was confirmed that the losses came from a leak in the boost line. At one point, the boost hose had ruptured and there were several other locations along the hose that were badly worn. The total losses were calculated to be 143 barrels ..."

In addition to human errors, frequent hurricanes in the gulf are a big problem the industry prefers not to talk about.

"Given the egregious record of off-shore oil problems, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was obviously forseeable and should have been prevented," Hang notes.

As the number of spills mounted, no one paid attention. Now the big one is here, and nothing can hide that gushing hole at the bottom of the sea.

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